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How do You Know if You’re in a Hostile Work Environment?

Most people are familiar with the concept of a hostile work environment, especially if they are a member of one or more minority groups. However, far fewer can define what that actually means, and that lack of knowledge can lead to many harassment claims going unreported. Being familiar with what hostile work environment actually is can make a difference in your decision to report, and consequently in your quality of life.

Hostile Work Environments: Where Is The Line?

Many people find it intolerable to work with a coworker who makes jokes about the attractiveness of women or their preferred sex. However, while such jokes may be offensive, making them does not generally constitute a hostile work environment unless it makes it impossible for the other worker to do their job. The conduct must be pervasive and last a significantly long time. Conduct may be offensive or disruptive without necessarily being hostile, which many may not understand.

The opposite, however, is also true. Some conduct can and does constitute a hostile work environment even if it is mild or friendly in nature; tone or method of approach does not negate the underlying impropriety of someone’s conduct. The South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC) states clearly that harassment can take many different forms, and while the law does not “prohibit simple teasing,” it acknowledges that simple teasing may become a problem if it makes doing one’s job impossible or results in some kind of adverse employment decision (such as a demotion or pay cut).

What Does It Meant To Be Of A Protected Class?

One critical benchmark when evaluating a possible hostile work environment claim that is often passed over or forgotten is that the harassment must be related to a person’s membership in a protected class. In other words, there must be laws prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of which the hostile work environment is being alleged—such as race, gender/sex (this includes pregnancy), national origin, age, or disability.

This requirement can often appear inequitable to those who may encounter ill treatment based on, for example, weight or financial status. However, there are other remedies besides the formal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) process for adjudicating such claims, such as your employer’s human resources department, state officials or mediation. A hostile work environment is generally not tolerated, but given the limited resources of the EEOC, the rationale is that lines must be drawn. Employers in South Carolina also incur a rebuttable presumption of liability in such cases unless they can show that they attempted to correct the issue and the employee failed to participate or go along with proposed remedies. This means that employers have a strong motivation to assess hostile work environment claims before lawsuits or EEOC claims may be filed.

Consult An Employment Discrimination Attorney

If you fear that you’ve been subjected to a hostile work environment, but have trouble defining what that may actually be, consulting a knowledgeable attorney is a good first step. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and his Charleston firm of Hitchcock & Potts can help answer your questions and advise you on a strategy for your situation in the future.

Contact us today to set up a free initial consultation.


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