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Hostile Work Environments & Politics

In today’s contentious political climate, many employers have begun to impose blanket bans on political talk, even when employees are on break or at lunch. Emotions run high and opinions are strong. But do these uncomfortable situations really constitute hostile work environments for employees? The answer is likely more complex than one might think.

Law On Hostile Work Environments Is Vague

South Carolina has very few employment laws aside from the Human Affairs Law, which is an antidiscrimination code. Instead, state regulators prefer to look to federal guidelines. According to those federal regulations, a hostile work environment generally arises from an employee being subjected to persistent unwanted harassment due to a characteristic of theirs which is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These characteristics include but are not limited to race, gender, national origin, disability, age (to a certain degree), and religion. Also, hostile work environments do not necessarily involve overtly sexual behavior—as merely harassing in a manner that is seen as unwelcome and potentially intimidating can be considered hostile. If you believe you have experienced such conditions, you may have a case against your employer.

It is equally important to understand what does and does not constitute a hostile work environment. The law does not demand camaraderie, merely civility. In other words, mere teasing or joking does not rise to the level of a hostile work environment in the majority of cases. If a male employee makes one slightly inappropriate joke about women, this behavior is not considered hostile. However, if that same employee makes the same jokes every day and takes care to do so in front of women, it likely could be.

Are There Laws Regarding Political Opinion?

One might state that political opinion cannot be grounds for a hostile work environment claim, because political opinion is not a protected characteristic under Title VII. However, that statement is not correct for multiple reasons.

The most obvious of these reasons is that political opinion can be tied to other characteristics that are protected under federal law. For example, in the past, Hispanic people have been discriminated against by various businesses because they tend to vote for liberal candidates. If a business puts up a sign which states that no liberals are permitted inside, but they only stop Hispanic liberals from going inside, that business could be seen as having discriminatory intent.

Another complication in South Carolina workplace law is that South Carolina is one of the few states to have a law explicitly stating that political opinion may not be grounds for harassment or termination from employment at will. It is also somewhat unique in that the law applies to both public and private employers while most anti discrimination ordinances are meant primarily for the public. Thus, in South Carolina, political opinion is in many cases a protected characteristic of an employee. This classification greatly increases your chances of prevailing on a hostile work environment claim.

Ask An Employment Lawyer

It is generally a good idea to be aware of what one can and cannot do at work. If you have other questions or need advice, attorney A. Christopher Potts and his Charleston employment discrimination firm may be able to assist. Contact us today to set up an appointment.

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