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What is a Hostile Working Environment and What Should I Do if I Think I Have One?

Employment4

Feel like the treatment you’re facing at work is unbearable? When might your workplace situation rises to the level of a hostile work environment claim? Hostile work environment claims are one of the most commonly misunderstood claims under the law. Many people believe that they have a hostile work environment claim when a coworker or manager acts “hostile” or “threatening” towards them, but that is only part of what is required.

In order to assert a valid hostile work environment against your Florida workplace, the harassment must involve a protected trait – such as a hostile work environment based on race, religion, national origin, disability/handicap (mental or physical), age, color, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, genetic information, or marital status. Simply put, you cannot have a hostile work environment claim unless it is hostile work environment because of one of those traits. Courts will commonly look at all of the circumstances to determine whether an employee has a valid hostile work environment claim. Typically, hostile work environment claims concern harassment, but there may be other circumstances in which an employee can make a successful hostile work environment claim in Florida, as well.

Harassment and Hostile Working Environments in Florida

Most hostile work environment claims involve “harassment” or a harassing environment. As the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) explains, “harassment is a form of employment discrimination,” and it can violate a number of federal laws, including the following:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964;
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA); and
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Under state law, harassment can also violate the Florida Civil Rights Act. In general, harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct that is based on a protected trait”– like sex, race, disability, etc, and as discussed, above. While harassment may give rise to a claim for discrimination (there is no law requiring general civility in the workplace), not all harassment creates a hostile working environment claim. The EEOC explains that harassment rises to the level of a hostile work environment when one of the following occurs:

  • Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a continued condition of employment; or
  • Conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

The Difficulty of Defining Unlawful Conduct that is Intimidating, Hostile, or Offensive

As you can see, there is no bright-line rule for defining harassment and what constitutes a hostile work environment. In some cases, a single act may be sufficient to give rise to a hostile work environment lawsuit, but in most cases, plaintiffs will have endured certain offensive behavior over a period of time. It is important to note that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents” are not illegal harassment.

What, then, would constitute offensive conduct that a reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile, or offensive? There are many forms of conduct that may rise to the level of actionable harassment, including but not limited to:

  • Verbal conduct (such as offensive jokes, slurs, name calling, threats, intimidation, or insults); and
  • Physical conduct (such as physical assaults or touching).

Harassment that creates a hostile work environment can be actionable when almost anyone at your job engages in unlawful behavior. To be clear, harassers can be supervisors or bosses, co-workers, and even non-employees in certain circumstances.

In some cases, behavior beyond harassment can also produce a hostile work environment. For instance, in Gowski v. Peake, the Eleventh Circuit determined that retaliation at work can constitute a hostile work environment. Given that Florida is part of the Eleventh Circuit, this case has important implications for employees in Palm Beach County and throughout the state of Florida.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have a Hostile Work Environment? 

If you believe you are being harassed or enduring other types of behavior prohibited under Florida law, you should discuss your case with a Florida employment law attorney as soon as possible.

Resource:

eeoc.gov/laws/types/harassment.cfm

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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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