Hostile Work Environments
The term “hostile work environment” is often misunderstood. At Locke & Quinn, we often get employees calling us or coming in for a consultation who want to sue the employer for working in a “hostile work environment.” However, just because you the employee might work in an unpleasant work environment does not mean that there is any legal cause of action. It is therefore important to understand and recognize what is an unlawful or illegal hostile work environment and what is just a very bad place to work.
What is an illegal hostile work environment?
An illegal hostile work environment is one in which an employee is the victim of unlawful harassment, or who is otherwise impacted by such unlawful harassment. But what makes harassment unlawful? First, the harassment has to be based on the victim’s membership in a protected class, meaning you the employee are being targeted because of your age, race, religion, national origin, disability, gender (including pregnancy and related medical conditions), or other legally protected status. Remember, being a member of a protected class is not enough; instead, that has to be the basis for the harassment. So, for example, if you are an employee with a disability, and your supervisor regularly insults your haircut, you have to show that the harassment is based on you having a disability – as opposed to your supervisor simply finding from a personal preference standpoint that your haircut is not to his or her liking. On the other hand, if your employer regularly insults your haircut and you must have it cut that way due to your disability, then the first prong of unlawful harassment might have been met.
In addition to being based on a victim’s membership in a protected class, illegal harassment also must be severe and pervasive. In other words the unlawful harassment must be really super bad. So, using the above example, if the supervisor’s ridicule about the haircut only happens once a month, that will not qualify as severe and pervasive. Also, in cases of sexual harassment, occasional flirtatious behavior or isolated incidents of relatively innocent commentary will not be considered unlawful. On the other hand, courts have found that, severe and frequent instances of harassment, such as the frequent use of especially offensive slurs or commentary, can create an illegal hostile work environment. And one really bad severe incident, such as a sexual assault, also often will qualify as unlawful.
What is NOT an illegal hostile work environment (legally speaking)?
Many employees have probably experienced a hostile work environment in the general sense – an angry or temperamental boss, difficult coworkers, or even clients who simply make day-to-day work extremely challenging. Unfortunately, none of these elements, on their own, give rise to a legal right of action. Employment in Virginia is “at will,” meaning that your employer is allowed to terminate you without cause, and you are likewise allowed to quit your job without providing a reason. Within that context, it is not illegal for an employer or supervisor to simply be mean or unfair, even in cases where such behavior reaches extremes. An employer is allowed to be a jerk and treat the employees in a rude manner provided that the employer is equally rude to everyone. Remember, some employers are simply unpleasant, and some supervisors or co-workers are equal-opportunity offenders who treat everyone crudely and with the same (or similar) degree of poor behavior. The best thing to do in such a situation is find another place to work that is in a pleasant environment.
What can I do about an unlawful hostile work environment?
If you are the victim of an unlawful hostile work environment, you may be entitled to the protection of federal and state laws, which provide remedies through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and through the courts.
At Locke and Quinn, we have decades of experience in a variety of employment matters, including unlawful hostile work environment claims. Please contact our office with any further inquiries about these services.