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Hostile Work Environment Is Not Just Bullying

I often hear people say that their work environment is hostile. It may feel that way, but an environment with conflict or problems does not always equate to a hostile work environment legally and you have no basis for a claim unless your work environment meets the legal definition. The same can be said for retaliation and discrimination as well, but that is something to be discussed in another post. Today’s post focuses on hostile work environment. So, what does it really mean?

The definition of hostile work environment is one of the most misunderstood concepts in employment law. The everyday meaning of hostile work environment and the legal meaning are not the same. The legal standard is looked at from the perspective of a “reasonable person”, meaning not from the individual’s position, but from that of the average person.

To meet the legal standard of hostile work environment, there are three basic requirements: (1) the actions/behavior must discriminate based on a legally protected status (race, sex, religion, age, etc.); 2) the actions/behavior must be pervasive and last over time; and (3) the actions/behavior must be severe and disrupt the employee’s work making it impossible to perform his or her job. ALL three elements must be met in order for a hostile work environment to exist.

A hostile work environment is also found in the case where someone has been asked to stop a behavior, but continued it. It must be so severe and intense that it interrupts work, making it impossible to work or progress a career or it alters the terms, conditions, and expectations of a comfortable work environment. In order for an employer to be held liable, the behavior must either have been by a supervisor or if by a co-worker, the behavior had to have been reported and continued.

To further explain the legal standard for hostile work environment, it is important to look at examples of behavior that do and do not meet the legal definition.

Examples of behavior meeting the legal definition of hostile work environment are as follows (this list is not a complete list of all behavior that would be defined as hostile work environment):

  • Sexual jokes;
  • Sexual/naked images;
  • A boss berating an employee about protected class;
  • Intimidating/abusive behavior to a protected class;
  • A boss leering at an employee;
  • Sexual comments; and
  • Unrelentless ridicule or mockery.

Examples of behavior that does not meet the legal definition of hostile work environment include:

  • A bad boss;
  • An unpleasant environment;
  • Rudeness;
  • Failure to be promoted;
  • Lack of perks;
  • Casual joking;
  • Loud talking or yelling;
  • Leaning over/above an employee;
  • Bullying;
  • Obnoxious behavior; and
  • Inappropriate or annoying remarks or behavior.

If you have a question regarding whether or not your work environment meets the legal definition of hostile, Sapphire Legal offers free case evaluations and can assist you. Contact us at info@sapphire-law.com or

call (425) 324-3586 for your free consultation.