Claims alleging hostile work environments have been rising for the last several years. While more and more claims are being adjudicated, there is still not a particularly specific definition of the term. If you are in a position where you believe you may have a claim to make, it can feel paralyzing to not be able to definitively know before going ahead. But there are several red flags that may add up to a situation that constitutes a hostile work environment for you. Learn more in this post.
A Protected Class Must Be At Issue
Perhaps the most misunderstood thing about hostile work environment claims is that there must be a protected class at issue. In other words, the hostility must stem from your membership in a protected class (or perceived membership in a protected class, or your relationship to someone who is a member of a protected class). A protected class is one specifically named in federal or state anti-discrimination laws, at least in South Carolina. Examples of these include race, sex or gender, religion, national origin, and many others. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the law most commonly used in employment discrimination suits, though there are others, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
The conclusion that one has to draw from this is that mere jokes or teasing, with no specific targeted edge, are not generally actionable, at least not as an employment discrimination complaint. A hostile work environment is not necessarily hostile in a legal sense if everyone is subject to the same insults or mockery, because at that point no one is being targeted. The rationale is that unless someone’s civil rights are being violated, the matter should be handled in-house, without involving the machinery of the law.
If It Is, What Then?
If you are experiencing poor treatment as a result of your association with a protected class, the next step is to determine whether it rises to the level of hostility. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines ‘hostility’ and ‘hostile work environment’ loosely as a situation in which two things are true: (1) the conduct is “severe” or “pervasive” enough where a reasonable person would find the environment hostile or abusive; and (2) tolerating the treatment becomes, explicitly or implicitly, a condition of continued employment. Intimidation of any kind tends to tip the balance toward finding the environment hostile rather than not.
While this is the framework that the EEOC will use in hostile work environment claims, it is important to keep in mind that the ultimate determination will still rely on subjective testimony. What may be hostile to you may not rise to the ‘reasonable person’ standard. Conversely, getting the right combination of facts may lead to matters being ruled in your favor. The best course of action if you are debating a claim is to document everything you can, as the more information you can provide to back up your claim, the less subjective your determination will have to be.
Contact An Employment Discrimination Attorney
Dealing with a hostile work environment is something no one should have to do. If it happens to you, information is key. Being able to spot red flags can help you cut to the chase and seek recompense much earlier than you might otherwise. Attorney A. Christopher Potts is well versed in hostile work environment claims and is happy to share his experiences with you. Contact Hitchcock & Potts today to schedule an appointment.