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Hostile Work Environment

Are there guidelines or standards regarding what defines a hostile work environment?

Yes, there are EEOC guidelines regarding a hostile work environment. This is one of the most misunderstood terms in the HR world. A supervisor who simply shouts at employees, threatens their jobs, is verbally abusive or unpleasant does not necessarily create a hostile work environment, especially if he or she treats all employees the same. Such behavior is unprofessional, but it does not meet the test for a hostile work environment.

A hostile work environment is a specific type of illegal discrimination where one or more members of a protected group are targeted due to their race, color, religion, national ancestry, sex, age (between 40 and 70), genetic information, pregnancy, or disability.

A supervisor can create a hostile work environment, but more often it is coworkers who target employees who are members of a protected group. Usually, the employer must be aware of the negative conduct, and have not taken steps to correct it.

Examples of a hostile work environment: A female firefighter in New Jersey was the target of negative actions by coworkers, because they did not want to work with a woman. She found pornographic photos of naked women in her inbox at work, every day for 6 months. When she complained to her employer, they told her *boys will be boys* and refused to take action. The courts ruled that she was the target of a hostile work environment based on her sex, and the employer paid more than $1 million to settle the suit.

In a factory in Pennsylvania, African American employees were the target of a hostile work environment. Graffiti including the n-word was scrawled on the walls all over the place of employment, white supremacist literature was in the employee break room and several African American employees found nooses hanging from their lockers. The EEOC sued the employer for tolerating a hostile work environment for African American employees. In that suit, the judge ruled that the abuse was so pervasive that the employer should have known about it without the employees complaining directly. The factory paid millions of dollars to 17 employees, to settle the suit.

By contrast, suppose Luis has a boss who is unpleasant. The boss growls, throws temper tantrums, shouts, and threatens to fire employees. He routinely sets impossible deadlines and berates employees who do not meet those deadlines. If the boss treats everyone this way, this is poor management but it is not illegal discrimination. If the boss intentionally treats only Latino employees this way because he does not want to work with people of Hispanic heritage, then it is a hostile work environment.

Unfortunately there is not currently any law that prevents a supervisor from verbally abusing all employees regardless of race, color, sex, national ancestry, etc. This is often called being an equal opportunity harasser. At this time, that behavior is legal and does not create a hostile work environment.

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This entry was posted on Friday, October 8th, 2010 at 7:06 am and is filed under
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