Without a doubt, work should be a place where employees feel safe. However, many people have experienced unhealthy and negative environments that cause excessive amounts of stress and take a mental, physical, and emotional toll. For some, this looks like a toxic work environment, but when there’s harassment involved, it becomes a hostile work environment. If you feel you’ve been experiencing unwelcome conduct that’s having an adverse effect on your work, read on.
What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment occurs when an employee faces discrimination and harassment on account of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 and older), disability, and genetic information in the workplace that interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job, or creates an intimidating/abusive environment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protects these eight traits against unwelcome conduct, including comments and behavior, at work as well as defines the types of scenarios where harassment becomes hostile:
Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or
The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that would be considered intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
An employee also does not have to be the target of the harassment to be a victim of a hostile work environment. The person causing the harassment does not necessarily have to be an employee either—the person behaving out of line could be a supervisor, co-worker, client, vendor, visitor, or other non-employee. If you’re experiencing a hostile environment, it doesn’t matter who’s causing it or who the target is for you to be affected. Simply being in the presence of repeated negative behavior can have harmful effects on one’s work performance or psychological wellbeing.
If an employee reports harassment to the employer, anti-discrimination laws also prohibit retaliative harassment against them for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit. Employees are also legally protected for opposing employment practices they believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.
Harassment may include, though is not limited to, the following behaviors:
Epithets or name calling
Physical assaults or threats
Ridicule or mockery
Insults or put-downs
Offensive objects or pictures
Interference with work performance
For harassment to be considered illegal, it must be serious and recurring. The EEOC does not recognize “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious).” Rather, for conduct to become unlawful, it “must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” Though this might sound vague, if you’re uncomfortable, you have the legal opportunity to speak up.
What to Do if You’re Experiencing Harassment at Work
Reporting the harassment to your human resources department is the most important step to take. You may also directly inform your harasser (if safe and appropriate) that the behavior is unwelcome and illegal, and must stop. Per the EEOC, employers are automatically liable in circumstances where a supervisor harasses an employee and “results in a negative employment action such as termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages.” That means If you’re experiencing harassment and you’re being passed over for a promotion or calling out of work/leaving work in the middle of a shift which results in lost wages, you have a case to make with HR.
Should You Report Harassment to Human Resources?
In general, the answer here is yes. You must go to HR to report the harassing behavior in order for the organization to be liable for resolving it. The EEOC details that employers are free of liability if the employer can prove two things:
The employer reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior.
The employee (you) failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.
To put it another way, the organization needs to be formally made aware of the harassment and given the opportunity to take corrective action. That means you can’t jump straight from harassment to a lawsuit—you first have to give your employer the opportunity to correct the situation. If the employer does try to correct the harassing behavior through mediation, training, or another solution, for example, and you don’t engage, your employer cannot be held responsible. However, you are protected if you do engage in the solution and it is ineffective at preventing the harassment, there may be cause for holding the employer liable.
The Special Case in Washington, DC: The DC Human Rights Act
The DC Human Rights Act protects employees from workplace discrimination and harassment in Washington, DC. This local law supersedes and is more stringent than federal laws. There are 16 protected traits:
Race: classification or association based on a person’s ancestry or ethnicity
Color: skin pigmentation or complexion
Religion: a belief system which may or may not include spirituality
National origin: the country or area where one’s ancestors are from
Sex: a person’s gender; sex discrimination includes sex harassment, and discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, related medical conditions, breastfeeding, and reproductive health decisions
Age: 18 years or older
Marital status: married, single, in a domestic partnership, divorced, separated, and widowed
Personal appearance: outward appearance, but is subject to business requirements or standards
Sexual orientation: homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality
Gender identity or expression: your gender-related identity, behavior, appearance, expression or behavior which is different from what you are assigned at birth
Family responsibilities: supporting a person in a dependent relationship, which includes, but is not limited to, your children, grandchildren and parents
Political affiliation: belonging to or supporting a political party
Disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; includes those with HIV/AIDS
Matriculation: being enrolled in a college, university or some type of secondary school
Genetic information: Your DNA or family history which may provide information as to a person’s predisposition or likely to come down with a disease or illness
Credit Information: any written, verbal or other communication of information bearing on an employee's creditworthiness, credit standing, credit capacity or credit history
If you feel you are facing discrimination as a result of these protected traits, you must also go to HR first. However, in cases of harassment on account of membership in a protected class, you don’t even have to have experienced a “negative employer action” for the employer to be liable.
What You Should Do if HR Does Not Act to Resolve the Situation
Hopefully addressing the harassment with the department dedicated to remedying harassment will resolve the situation, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. If the harassment doesn’t stop, if your supervisor retaliates, or HR chooses to look the other way for whatever reason, there are four steps you must take.
Consult your Employee Handbook and follow the instructions for filing a grievance
Submit a summary of the grievance in writing to the entity designated in the handbook
Consider filing an EEOC inquiry online (as soon as possible)
Consult an employment attorney
While this content will hopefully serve as helpful guidance, readers should obtain an attorney if they seek legal advice, and should not substitute this post for legal advice.
Dealing with a hostile work environment is challenging as well as emotionally, even physically, taxing. You shouldn’t go it alone. Line up support everywhere you can as you do the hard work of advocating for yourself.