Know Your Rights
Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hostile Work Environment

There are two types of discriminatory harassment: (1) harassment that creates a hostile work environment and (2) harassment that culminates in a tangible employment action. An employee who pursues a hostile work environment claim through the EEO process essentially must be able to show four factors. The individual must demonstrate that:

1. They are members of a protected class.

2. The harassment was in the form of unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.

3. The harassment was based on the statutorily protected class. In other words, the individual
must be able to prove that he or she was subjected to unwelcome conduct that was severe and/or pervasive because of his membership in a group protected under Title VII, the Rehabilitation Act, or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

4. The harassment affected a term or condition of employment and unreasonably interfered with the work environment or created a hostile work environment.  

In assessing whether a hostile work environment exists, all of the circumstances must be considered, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; whether it was hostile or patently offensive; and whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or a supervisor. In order to prove that the behavior altered the conditions of the complainant’s employment, so much so that it created an abusive working environment, the complainant must show that the incidents in question were “sufficiently severe and pervasive.” Isolated incidents or comments that don't lead to any concrete action against the complainant usually cannot support a claim of discriminatory harassment. However, under certain circumstances a single, particularly severe comment or action, can be enough to form the basis of a viable complaint. Whether an objectively hostile or abusive work environment exists is also based on whether a reasonable person in the complainant's circumstances would have found the alleged behavior to be hostile or abusive. Participating in the behavior, or acquiescing in the presence of such behavior, is not evidence that the individual was offended, however.