What factors determine a hostile workplace environment?

Investigators will consider the totality of the circumstances, but some of the factors that determine a hostile work environment are whether the conduct was verbal or physical or both, whether the alleged harasser was a supervisor, whether others joined in on the harassment, and more. If you or someone you know may be experiencing harassment at work, it is important to go to your Human Resources Department as soon as possible to report the abuse.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: May 7, 2022

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A hostile work environment is created when an employee feels uncomfortable or scared to be in his or her workspace due to offensive behavior, inappropriate behavior, intimidation, or abuse by a coworker or superior.

To determine whether a work environment is hostile, EEOC investigators look at the following factors. It is not, however, just one of these factors that sways a workplace harassment case. An assessment is made based on the totality of the circumstances. The objective severity of harassment is judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position, considering all of the circumstances.

EEOC hostile work environment elements include:

  1. Whether the conduct was verbal or physical or both;
  2. How frequently it was repeated;
  3. Whether the conduct was hostile or patently offensive;
  4. Whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or supervisor;
  5. Whether others joined in perpetrating the harassment;
  6. Whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual;
  7. What happened when senior management became aware of the situation such as whether the offensive conduct was dealt with and immediately ended or condoned.

If an employee is experiencing a hostile work environment, they can file a lawsuit against their harasser, whether it be a boss or a peer. When considering a lawsuit there are several legal elements that must be considered, including:

  • Is the victim protected by anti-discrimination laws based on race, religion, ethnicity, age, sex or disability?
  • Was the harassment directly related to the victim being of one of these protected classes?
  • Did the employer know of and fail to address the harassment?
  • Did the harassment involve threats of altering employment status? (Such as requesting sexual favors in exchange for a promotion).
  • Was the harassment ongoing or was it a single incident?

Some examples of harassment in the workplace are:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Hostile behaviors
  • Unwanted sexual conduct
  • Unwanted comments
  • Inappropriate sexual gestures

An attorney will consider these elements for each individual case. This type of legal claim is very much based on the specific circumstances involved and there is no one test to determine if a hostile situation was created. Generally, a hostile work environment can only be proven if the harassment is ongoing and severe, otherwise, the issue can be addressed using other legal remedies for sexual harassment. But a hostile work environment claim must be ongoing and offensive to not only the person being harassed but also subjectively to those considering the legal claim.

Employees working in a hostile environment can show burnout symptoms earlier than normal. An unpleasant work environment also makes for a less productive workplace and tend to have a negative impact on their employees.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing harassment at work, it is important to go to your Human Resources Department as soon as possible to report the abuse. If there is no HR Dept., go to your superior; if it is one of your superiors who is subjecting you to the harassment, go to another who is not involved, even if they are not necessarily your next in command. For a case to be successful, it is critical that there is documented evidence that the problem was reported; having documented the incident or incidents will go a long way when a judge is considering a sexual harassment case – it can be the difference between a large settlement and walking away with nothing after having been forced to leave your job. An attorney can better instruct you on your specific situation, so it is always best to consult an experienced legal professional before moving forward.

Read more in:

Can my employer retaliate against me for filing a claim with the EEOC?

What is the statute of limitations for sexual harassment claims?

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