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What is a Hostile Work Environment and What Can You Do if You’re Working in One?

Do you hate your job, dread going to work, wish you could be just about anywhere else? Have you even wondered if you could make a legal case against your employer for a hostile work environment? Well, that depends. Most people at one time or another are unhappy at work, because of a bad boss, an obnoxious co-worker, the feeling that you are under-appreciated, and so forth. Plenty of people have complaints about their boss or co-workers or some company policy they dislike.

You may feel that people are hostile toward you because they don’t choose to be overtly friendly, which may not make the workplace much fun. But simply because your job is a place you’d rather not be, you don’t like the people you work with, or you did not get the promotion you thought you deserved does not mean your workplace would qualify as a hostile one in the legal sense.

What Constitutes a “Hostile Work Environment?”

To meet the qualifications of a hostile workplace, someone, such as a boss or a coworker, must be engaging in behavior directed toward you that:

1.) Is so severe or so persistent that it prevents you from being able to perform your job adequately, and

2.) Is discriminatory, based on your membership in a group that is protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent federal laws and state, such as race, color, sex, gender identity, age, ethnicity, national origin, religion, pregnancy, disability, and genetic information, and certain medical conditions, including HIV/AIDS and sickle cell trait (in Florida). You are also protected against retaliation for refusing to participate in an illegal activity at work, reporting illegal activity on the part of your employer to the appropriate agency (“whistleblowing”), or taking advantage of a legal right, such as making a Workers’ Compensation claim or taking FMLA family leave time to which you are entitled.

Examples of a Hostile Work Environment

Here are just a few examples that would probably meet the definition of a hostile environment:

  • Your co-worker continually refers to you as a terrorist because you are Muslim.
  • Your boss comments frequently on how sexy you look and asks you “how you like it.”
  • People in your office use pejorative racial or sexual slurs regularly in your hearing.
  • Someone in your office touches you inappropriately and often.
  • A boss or co-worker repeatedly solicits sexual favors from you.
  • A boss or co-worker pesters you for a date when you have repeatedly expressed lack of interest.
  • Co-workers display nude or sexually explicit and/or demeaning pictures.
  • Someone in your workplace mocks a speech impediment or mimics the way you walk due to a disability.
  • You are repeatedly subjected to crude jokes aimed at people of your age, race, ethnicity, gender, disability, etc.

An isolated off-color joke or non-politically correct remark does not meet the threshold, but ongoing and persistent jokes or discriminatory comments, even when accompanied by a smile meant to be disarming, probably would. A victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment causing a hostile work environment can be male or female, or of the same or opposite sex.

Taking Action Against Workplace Discrimination

If you are being sexually or otherwise harassed, if you have made it clear that the behavior is unacceptable and unwanted, if your employer knows about the behavior and fails to stop it, and it persists and becomes so severe or so pervasive that you cannot effectively do your job, it may be time to report it to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and consider hiring a Tampa employment lawyer at Florin Gray to pursue a legal claim.

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