Hostile work environment

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In United States labor law, a hostile work environment exists when one's behavior within a workplace creates an environment that is difficult for another person to work in. Common complaints in sexual harassment lawsuits include fondling, suggestive remarks, sexually-suggestive photos displayed in the workplace, use of sexual language or off-color jokes.[1] Small issues, annoyances, and isolated incidents typically are not considered to be illegal. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to a reasonable person. An employer can be held liable for failing to prevent these workplace conditions, unless it can prove that it attempted to prevent the harassment and that the employee failed to take advantage of existing harassment counter-measures or tools provided by the employer.[2]

A hostile work environment may also be created when management acts in a manner designed to make an employee quit in retaliation for some action. For example, if an employee reported safety violations at work, was injured, attempted to join a union, or reported regulatory violations by management, and management's response was to harass and pressure the employee to quit. Employers have tried to force employees to quit by imposing unwarranted discipline, reducing hours, cutting wages, or transferring the complaining employee to a distant work location.

The United States Supreme Court stated in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.[3] that Title VII is "not a general civility code." Thus, federal law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not extremely serious. Rather, the conduct must be so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the individual's employment. The conditions of employment are altered only if the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action or is sufficiently severe or pervasive.

Burdens of proof[edit]

Where a hostile environment is alleged, the legality of behaviors must be determined on a case by case basis. In the workplace, such a claim focuses on the working conditions that must be endured by the victim as a condition of employment, rather than on tangible job changes. To establish whether the situation is actionable the "totality of circumstances" must be weighed with an eye to determining "that the harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment in that it was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the condition of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment".[4] To rise to the level of hostile environment, the behavior must be frequent, severe and pervasive. It is not enough that a single such incident, or a few isolated incidents, have occurred, or that only one employee engages in such conduct (unless that employee is in a supervisory capacity).

To establish a prima facie case for hostile work environment sexual harassment, the alleged victim must prove the following five elements:

  • He or she suffered intentional, unwanted discrimination because of his or her sex.
  • The harassment was severe or pervasive.
  • The harassment negatively affected the terms, conditions or privileges of his or her work environment.
  • The harassment would detrimentally affect a reasonable person of the same sex.
  • Management knew about the harassment, or should have known, and did nothing to stop it.[5]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Fundamentals of Human Resource Management (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill/Irwin. October 4, 2010. p. 78. ISBN 978-0073530468. 
  2. ^ "Harassment". Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved June 12, 2015. 
  3. ^ [1], Oncale v. Sundowner, Case Text
  4. ^ Pellicciotti, Joseph M. Title VII Iiability for sexual harassment in the workplace. Alexandria, Va. International Personnel Management Association, 1988.
  5. ^ Proving Discrimination,Proving Pregnancy Discrimination,Proving Racial Discrimination

Further reading[edit]