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.

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Susan Oliver
2019-07-11T13:45:15+0000
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Michelle Spencer
2019-06-25T15:00:35+0000
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Ashley Halsey
2019-02-10T03:58:33+0000
My wife and I worked with Colleen Quinn and her paralegal Charli (CharSalle) on my daughter's international re-adoption. We are in Fairfax, VA and they were happy to work with us even though we weren’t local to them. Everything was done by email and mail. They answered all of our questions in a timely manner and were very knowledgeable about the process. We worked almost entirely with Charli after the initial emails and phone calls and she was great to work with. They filed all of our paperwork with our court, everything went smoothly, and we received our Final Order. Charli has always kept us in the loop about the process and sent us updates. We mailed original documents back and forth without any issue. Their legal fee was very competitive and better than most attorneys in our own area. We are very pleased with their work and assistance in getting our adoption finalized. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone. Thank you!
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Ahmed Rashid
2018-12-20T14:52:57+0000
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Bob Stiepock
2017-10-23T19:39:04+0000
Personal Injury is a challenging event on many levels in ones life. Have you experienced a moment where you were injured and need to seek legal advice? You need to make a call to Colleen Quinn today. I began to research different law firms that handled Personal Injury. I interviewed several attorneys and spoke with large practices to small firms. I was impressed by Colleens resume and her work with women and the law. I will never regret hiring Colleen and her TEAM. The word TEAM is exactly what I received through out my case. My case was attacked with professionalism and the team was always in communication with me. When I would call to ask questions or to get a better explanation I was always made to feel as if I was the only client. As my case arrived closer to the trail date, my TEAM went into full 110%+ effort and preparation. Colleen was ALWAYS seeking to settle my case with the best outcome that she could. YOU WILL NOT FIND A MORE UPFRONT, HONEST, HARDWORKING-GET IT DONE ATTITUDE THAN THE TEAM OF COLLEEN M. QUINN!! MAKE THAT CALL TODAY-YOU WONT REGET IT!!
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