You may have a bad boss, rude co-workers, and a workplace that makes you feel dread every morning. But does it qualify as a hostile work environment? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as "unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information."
It becomes unlawful when "enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive," the EEOC says.
Eric Bachman, a principal with Zuckerman Law who handles employment discrimination claims, says one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about what constitutes a hostile work environment is believing that it refers to a toxic environment that can be created, for example, by a bully boss.
"A hostile work environment means a boss or a co-worker is specifically targeting someone because they're, for example, Black or a woman," says Bachman. "A toxic work environment is more generally abusive."
Some examples of offensive conduct include name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, insults or offensive objects, pictures or jokes, the EEOC says.
On the other hand, "petty slights, annoyances and isolated incidences (unless extremely serious)" don't meet those standards, the EEOC says.
Do you work in a hostile environment?
When considering whether you are dealing with a hostile work environment, Bachman says it's important to check laws in your state, which may be more "liberal" than federal rules and offer more options for victims.
Still, Bachman cautions that those who want to pursue a claim of a hostile work environment need to carefully assess whether they believe it's worth it since some complaints may drag on for months; it may require hiring a lawyer; you still may end up leaving the job; "and the process isn't going to be pleasant," he says.
Steps to take
If you have determined that you are indeed facing a hostile work situation, this is what you need to do next:
- Tell someone in authority. Whether it's a supervisor or the human resources department, you need to give the company a chance to rectify the situation. If you go to the EEOC without telling anyone in the company first, then the company can — rightly — defend themselves by saying they knew nothing about it.
- Participate in an investigation. Some companies will have "robust" investigations into your complaint, Bachman says, "but the vast majority don't." There may be some confusion by company leaders about what they're supposed to do, but you need to give your statements and await an outcome.
- Accept the resolution — or not. When an outcome is reached, you may be satisfied. If you're not, then it's time to consider filing your complaint with the EEOC. A lawyer can advise you about whether your complaint might be successful, and the deadlines that must be followed in filing paperwork with the EEOC.
"The unfortunate reality is that when an employee files, a company is going to say all the right things," Bachman says. "So, nothing may happen. Then it can become so unpleasant working there that many times the employee ends up leaving anyway."
If you believe you have been discriminated against according to federal and state laws, it's important to take the appropriate steps before you file with the EEOC and consider hiring a lawyer. It's vital "to have your eyes wide open" when going through the process, realizing it isn't going to be a walk in the park, Bachman says.
Still, even though you may worry about retaliation after you file a complaint, don't forget that you do have legal protection in these situations.