Hostile Work Environment Claim: What Steps to Take

October 31, 2019

Before you make a  hostile work environment claim, specific legal criteria must be met for a workplace to be considered hostile.

To make a successful hostile work environment claim, you must show that you constantly felt uncomfortable at your place of work. A lousy boss, a rude co-worker, or an unpleasant workplace does not constitute a hostile work environment, nor does a lack of privileges, perks, and benefits.

The legal definition of a hostile work environment is when an employee feels uncomfortable or fearful in his or her workspace.  Further, this fear or discomfort is due to an employer or coworker whose actions or behavior make doing their job impossible, which includes offensive behavior, intimidation, or verbal or physical abuse.

It’s important to remember the actions, communication, and behavior must be discriminatory.

An unhealthy working environment will affect you mentally and physically! This is why it is so important to fight against hostile work environments.  This means using the legal system and hiring an employment lawyer to defend your rights. However, for an employee to utilize the legal system, there must be proof of inappropriate conduct.

Various Federal Laws have defined a hostile workplace, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The laws describe inappropriate conduct and when a person is harassed or discriminated against due to:

  • race
  • religion
  • gender
  • national origin
  • age
  • disability

Keep in mind, to make a hostile work environment claim the conditions must be severe and pervasive, as well as deviating from the terms and conditions of a person’s employment. We would describe it as a work environment that is abusive and not comfortable for an employee to operate in, which, in turn, directly affects the quality of their work.

The test question to gauge this generally is, “Would a reasonable person find the environment to be hostile or abusive?”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOCagency is responsible for investigating a hostile work environment claim. One important distinction to bear in mind is that the law is not meant to protect against simple teasing, rude comments, or isolated situations that are not serious. So, if your boss is yelling at everyone (in an offensive manner) it may create a hostile space; however, this may not become problematic in the eyes of the law unless a particular person is singled out because of their race, religion, age, gender, nationality or disability.

How to Document & Prove a Hostile Working Environment

A person who makes a hostile working environment claim must prove it exists.  Proof requires fact-based detailed examples. You will need to start keeping very detailed documentation.

When writing detailed notes on your hostile workplace environment, keep in mind, the burden of proof is your responsibility.  Unfortunately, this burden of proof falls on the person being bullied or harassed. Every case review determines the validity of allegations on an individual basis.  Florida courts consider both the frequency and severity of the alleged actions that created a hostile working environment.  This includes whether the hostility involved physical threats and if it interfered with the person’s ability to perform their assigned duties.

You must prove treatment has been severe and pervasive, and the harassed employee has to show they were specifically targeted, proving that the offender was hostile toward a specific employee. Courts assess if the offender was objectively hostile toward a reasonable person of the same gender. They review the condition from a reasonable person’s point of view. For example, a person who would know what the employee knew at that time.

How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment

  1. Use Your Company’s Internal Complaint System
  2. Obtain Evidence of Company Awareness
  3. Take Note of Witnesses
  4. Research the Laws Applicable to Your Situation
  5. Seek Legal Advice

1. Use Your Company’s Human Resources Department or Internal Complaint System

If you feel you have a hostile work environment, make an official internal complaint first. We understand you may worry about getting into trouble or being retaliated against by your company.  However, generally, you will have legal protection in such situations. Both federal laws and some state laws protect people who file accusations.  It is unlawful for an employer to retaliate or take punitive actions against an individual who complains about discrimination and harassment. Even if your claim is found to have no merit or validity, the law still protects you as an employee.

2. Secure Evidence of Company Awareness

It’s essential to be able to prove that management was aware of the harassment, or that they should have been aware of it.  To do this, you need to begin by documenting dates, times, places, and other details of any meetings or discussions at which you reported the situation to the appropriate people in your company.

This is a crucial part of proving your case, which goes back to why it is a good idea to alert your manager or supervisor immediately that you feel that you are working in a hostile work environment.

Even if it is merely an informal meeting where you voice your concerns, you should tell someone in a supervisory role. Regardless of their reaction, you may also make an appointment with the Human Resources Department.

Document all of these meetings, as it can help prove that the harassment was pervasive, and that management was complicit in their conduct by doing nothing about it. 

3. Note Who Witnessed the Hostility

If you experience harassment, be aware of any witnesses that might have seen what took place.

Your case becomes much stronger when a third party supports it. Document witnesses’ names and contact information. Be sure to accurately document what they saw, so that you share this information with your employment lawyer.  If possible, have the witness provide a written statement either physically or via email to you. 

4. Research the Laws Applicable to Your Situation

Conduct some of your research to determine what laws might apply to your situation and your employer. For example, Federal anti-discrimination laws concerning disabilities do not apply to companies with under 15 employees.  Another example, for an age discrimination claim to be valid, then an employer must have at least 20 employees. The EEOC is an excellent resource for information. It is a U.S. Federal agency that enforces employment laws in the workplace.

5. Seek Legal Advice

Search for an employment law firm that specializes in discrimination, wrongful termination, or even employment law. Do not procrastinate calling an employment lawyer or worry about having the money upfront for the legal fees.  At FGBO Law, we offer a free and private consultation to go over your claim and, in many cases, offer a contingency fee agreement, meaning you don’t pay unless we win your case. 

6. Keep proof of the negative impact on your health or job performance

Save the performance reviews from your employer, because it’s a great way to prove that the hostile environment has affected your work performance. Also, keep medical records to show you started seeking medical or mental health help around the time that you are claiming the harassment occurred. Gathering evidence is imperative when it comes to establishing a credible timeline and a strong case. You can start your claim by going directly to the EEOC or equivalent state administrative agency, but that does not preclude you from seeking legal advice first.

7. Document Everything

If you feel that your workplace has become hostile, document as much as you can.  Save all communication that will help make a detailed accounting of what happened and how often it happened, be sure to include dates and times, a record of saved emails, notes, letters, voicemails, and any other evidence that you think will strengthen your case. Remember, your documentation will have to stand up in arbitration or court.

Contact our office to schedule a free initial consultation and case evaluation.

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