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What is a Hostile Work Environment and How to Prove it Happened

Tarun Sridharan Legal Editor & Attorney Contributor Read Time: 10 minutes

What is a Hostile Work Environment and How to Prove it Happened

As Americans spend most of their time at work, several laws protect employees from a hostile work environment and hostility in the workplace. Thankfully, lawmakers agree the workplace should be a place where employees feel safe and comfortable.

The working public often finds the concept of a hostile workplace confusing, as everyone has their own sensitivities. For example, one person may feel that a rude co-worker is creating a hostile work environment, while another may have no problem with it. What constitutes a hostile work environment can differ depending on who you ask.

Legal realities are quite different.

Under the law, the definition of a hostile work environment depends on a specific set of criteria. For example, having a rude co-worker is not sufficient to qualify as hostility in the workplace. If you believe that your workplace does meet the criteria for a hostile work environment, contact an experienced hostile work environment attorney to address your concerns. They can and will guide you on to the next steps.

For now, let us explore some basic definitions and examples of a hostile work environment so that you have a better understanding of what a hostile workplace environment is.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a situation where a coworker’s behavior makes it difficult for another employee to do their job. This can vary from state to state. For instance, a hostile work environment in California may differ from one in Massachusetts.

However, the hostile work environment meaning is widely accepted to be when conduct interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job. Conduct includes words, actions, and so forth.

What should I do if I believe I am in a hostile work environment?

If you believe you are experiencing a hostile work environment, it is important to report the issue to your HR department, supervisor, or a higher authority within your organization, following your company’s established procedures for reporting workplace problems.

Also, be sure to document these incidents – which we will touch upon more later.

Sometimes, reporting these conditions to a supervisor or manager does not fix the situation, and it can become severe. That’s usually where the assistance of a qualified hostile work environment lawyer is necessary.

What Four Factors Could Contribute to a Hostile Work Environment?

Analyses of what is considered a hostile work environment is not subjective. In other words, it is not enough to feel bothered by something your coworkers have said or done. The misconduct must be objectively problematic.

How does the law measure this?

Legal requirements to qualify for a hostile workplace include:

  • Discriminatory harassment is unwelcome and offensive conduct that is based on discrimination. This can include words or actions based on someone’s sex, gender, race, pregnancy status, religion, disability status, national origin, or age.
  • The harassing conduct is regular, not a one-time event.
  • Conduct lasted for a sufficiently lengthy period.
  • The harassment is bad enough that an average person would find it offensive, scary, or abusive.

If you can show that your employer did nothing to remedy the pervasive conduct, they will lose a lot of strategic leverage in the dispute. So, what constitutes a hostile environment in the workplace?

Here are a few common examples of toxic workplace behaviors:

  • Unwanted touching
  • Sabotaging employees
  • Offensive jokes about protected characteristics
  • Sexual language or discussions of sexual acts
  • Displaying racist or sexual pictures to others
  • And more

Unsurprisingly, many employees find these hostile work environment examples difficult to deal with, negatively impacting their ability to properly do their job. Simply put, discrimination and harassment create workplace hostility.

Is a single incident enough to constitute a hostile work environment?

Typically, a single isolated incident may not be sufficient to establish a hostile work environment. It often requires a pattern of behavior or repeated incidents that create a hostile atmosphere.

How Does a Hostile Work Environment Tie Into Discrimination and Harassment Complaints?

Discrimination occurs when one party treats another party unfavorably or unfairly due to a protected characteristic.

Types of discrimination are:

  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Pregnancy status
  • Disability
  • Veteran status
  • And more

When an employee experiences discriminatory behavior, they feel incapable and unwelcome, leading to a bad work experience.


Group of employees working in an open office

Hostile Work Environment Retaliation

Even if you correctly identified that you work in a hostile environment, your employer may make it difficult for you to report by engaging in retaliation. It is important to understand that retaliatory behavior is one of the things your boss can’t legally do, and it is also illegal.

Those who speak up about unfair and discriminatory actions in the workplace may be subjected to retaliatory behavior from their employer. Retaliatory behavior involves any adverse behavior in the workplace setting — it can include everything from being fired to being passed over for a promotion.

If you have been retaliated against, then the law will give you an additional and independent claim against your employer on that basis. And, this could result in even more compensation. In other words, you’ll have even more leverage to secure a positive outcome to your case.

Can you be fired for creating a hostile work environment?

While being fired can be retaliatory behavior to those who speak up, those who create a hostile work environment have a legitimate case for being terminated.

This is to say, yes, you can be fired for creating a hostile work environment. However, it’s essential to understand the specific legal context and requirements surrounding this issue.

If an employee engages in conduct that creates a hostile work environment, the employer must take prompt and appropriate action to address the situation. This may include conducting an investigation, taking disciplinary action against the offending employee, providing training to prevent further incidents, and implementing anti-discrimination and harassment policies.

If an employee is found to have engaged in behavior that creates a hostile work environment and the employer takes appropriate action to address it but the behavior continues or escalates, the offending employee may ultimately be terminated.H2: How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment?

All legal claims — including discrimination and harassment — require proof. Without sufficient proof, many claims are dismissed (or are settled for less than they are actually worth).

To win your case, you will need to show that there was workplace harassment or discrimination. The more evidence you have, the better. This evidence may include work performance reviews and assessments, for example, which can be used to show that the hostile work environment affected your job performance.

But how do you know what to preserve and document?

It is simple, really. Whenever you observe or experience anything that could be linked to a hostile work environment, document that behavior as best as possible. To strengthen your case, include:

  1. Date
  2. Time
  3. Notes
  4. Recordings
  5. All written correspondence

Make sure to include any documentation that involves co-workers, too. Why? Well, many people do not realize that when a coworker makes disparaging comments, it can also lead to a hostile work environment.

Additionally, an employer is liable for harassment, discrimination, and bullying in the workplace in certain circumstances. One example is: non-management staff exhibits offensive pervasive conduct. Employees inform their boss of the situation, but management does nothing to fix it. In this case, they are liable for the toxic work environment.

Find a Hostile Work Environment Attorney Today

Many employers have a workplace bullying policy in place to prevent a hostile or unsafe work environment. However, good intentions aren’t enough. Don’t assume that your employer has your best interests at heart.

There is a fine line between workplace bullying and a hostile work environment. The latter is often associated with illegal discrimination or harassment, while workplace bullying may involve general mistreatment or abusive behavior that is not necessarily based on protected characteristics. Therefore, a workplace bullying policy is rarely enough to prevent a hostile work environment.

Get in touch with experienced hostile work environment lawyers who can advocate on your behalf.

You may be wondering: can you sue for hostile work environment? If your case meets the legal criteria, you may be able to file a claim and secure compensation. But to understand what legal recourse there is, you should speak with a local hostile work environment attorney as soon as possible.

Contact 1-800-THE-LAW2 today for a free and confidential consultation.

Our offices are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so we can assist you no matter when your accident occurs.

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