Hostile Work Environment / Sexual Harassment
A hostile work environment is a type of discrimination claim. People commonly misunderstand a “hostile work environment” to refer to any workplace that is hostile. That is not the case. Legally speaking, there is nothing unlawful about creating a work environment that is hostile unless the hostility is based on an employee’s protected characteristic, such as race, gender, etc.
In legal terms, a hostile work environment refers to discriminatory words or conduct in the workplace that causes intimidation, ridicule, and insult and that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment. "Discriminatory" means directed at the employee's membership in a protected class. Some examples include: co-workers making misogynistic comments around female employees on a regular basis and the company, despite knowing this occurs, not attempting to stop the behavior; a supervisor frequently mocking and ridiculing an employee's religious beliefs; or an office where a gay or transgender employee is referred to in derogatory terminology based on his or her affect or appearance. If the hostility is because the employee had complained about discrimination in the past, this is also illegal because an employee is protected under the law from retaliation for complaining about unlawful discrimination.
A hostile work environment does not mean – at least legally – a boss giving unrealistic performance expectations and yelling at an employee on a regular basis for not meeting them, when that conduct is not due to the employee’s protected status.
If you believe that your employer has created or permitted a hostile work environment, you need to consider the reason for the hostility. In the event that the hostility stems from your race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or another protected status, then you should consult with a lawyer.