The phrase “hostile” or “offensive” work environment is thrown around often in a colloquial sense. But this can mean that when the phenomenon actually occurs, it is easier to miss it. So what behavior constitutes a hostile work environment? If you think that your job may have descended into this level, read on to learn more, and consider speaking with an experienced attorney.
Managers & Bosses Need Not Be Guilty
One of the most common misconceptions about hostile work environment claims is that a boss must be involved in the harassment or poor behavior in order for it to have the stamp, so to speak, of a ‘work environment.’ This is not the case. In reality, if coworkers or even those below you are participating in hostilities, it is still action for which the company may be held liable. Harassment creates a hostile work environment, so if harassment is not stopped by the company, the company must own the environment it has created (at least in theory).
The South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC) states that while simple teasing is not illegal, anything that rises to the level of harassment can create a hostile or offensive work environment. While an adverse employment decision may be a factor in determining that the environment is hostile, none is specifically required to have happened to make the determination in the first place. If the environment is such that you are unable to perform the functions of your job, it may be hostile, regardless of whether your boss takes part or not.
Must Discriminate Based On Protected Classification
The factor that can make or break a hostile work environment claim is whether or not the harassment is based on a protected class characteristic. This can include a perceived class characteristic—for example, someone who is perceived to be Muslim may hear Islamophobic jokes aimed at them even though they are Christian.
Employees may attempt to file a charge with either SCHAC or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) without being aware that the characteristic at issue is not protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and thus there is very little to be done. So what characteristics are protected?
Title VII explicitly holds that sex/gender, race, religion, national origin and color are characteristics that are protected, meaning that discrimination on these bases is considered unacceptable unless there is a strong, compelling interest in permitting it. For example, it is considered acceptable for U.S. government agencies to refuse to hire non-citizens for certain posts. This is technically discriminating on grounds of national origin, but there is a compelling interest (state security) for permitting it. While the reason for discrimination is almost always less lofty than national security, it is important to keep in mind that even if you are experiencing a hostile work environment due to one of these characteristics, your employer may be able to argue that it is acceptable.
Call An Employment Attorney
A hostile work environment is draining and difficult to exist within. You do not have to grin and bear it. If you believe you are being harassed or experiencing an offensive work environment, calling an employment discrimination attorney is a good step to take.
Attorney A. Christopher Potts has been handling employment discrimination cases for many years, and is happy to sit down to talk with you about yours. Contact our Charleston offices today to schedule an appointment.