When your boss is a jerk, your job might be extremely unpleasant. But if your boss is a jerk to everyone, her behavior isn’t likely to create a hostile work environment, at least not in legal terms. A hostile work environment involves harassment, and harassment is defined by the EEOC as:
Unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
When harassment becomes a condition of employment, and it’s severe enough that a reasonable person would find the environment abusive, intimidating, or hostile, you may be working in a hostile work environment. A Boston employment law attorney can help you determine if the bad behavior of a supervisor or co-worker constitutes unlawful harassment.
For workplace harassment to be unlawful, the following elements must be present:
- The victim belongs to a protected class.
- The victim was subjected to unwanted verbal or physical conduct.
- The harassment was based on the victim’s protected class.
- The harassment was a condition of continued employment, or the harassment created an offensive, intimidating, or hostile work environment.
If all of the above elements are present, you probably have a harassment case on your hands. If your employer knew about the harassment, but did nothing to stop it, the employer may also be liable.
Consider the following two scenarios:
Scenario A: Tyler just moved to Boston from Alabama. His new co-workers find his southern accent amusing. They give Tyler the nickname Billy Bob and constantly mock his accent. Tyler complains to his supervisor. She laughs and says that everyone loves his accent…that’s why they imitate him. After a few more weeks of the unwelcome jokes and name calling, Tyler gets really angry. He storms into his supervisor’s office and demands that everyone stop calling him Billy Bob and mocking his accent. Tyler’s supervisor asks Tyler to calm down and says that his “aggressive tone” may be cause for termination.
Scenario B: Brenda is gay. When she arrives to work each morning, an anonymous co-worker has put a magazine cutout of a scantily-clad woman on Brenda’s desk. After several days, Brenda reports the incidents to her supervisor. The supervisor laughs it off and tells Brenda that her co-workers are just having fun. After enduring another week of the unwelcome attention, Brenda is beyond angry. She storms into her supervisor’s office and demands that the supervisor do something. This time the supervisor gets angry and tells Brenda that if she can’t handle a little joke, maybe she should find another place to work.
Unlawful or Just Unkind?
In the above scenarios, both Tyler and Brenda are victims of unwelcome behavior. However, Tyler’s “harassment” is based on his southern roots. Unfortunately, being from the south is not a protected class. Therefore, Tyler’s harassment, however frustrating and cruel, is not unlawful. Brenda, on the other hand, is being targeted for her sexual orientation, which is a protected class. If Brenda files a harassment claim against her employer, she will likely win.
In addition to being based on a protected class, harassment must also be consistent and pervasive. What does that mean? Basically, in order for a work environment to be considered hostile, the alleged harassment cannot be based on a single incident. For example, if a co-worker utters a racial or ethnic epithet on one occasion, the incident is unlikely to create a hostile work environment. While one or more employees may be offended by the racial slur, if it’s an isolated remark made by one employee, it isn’t likely to seriously affect the conditions of employment. But it really all depends on the unique circumstances of the case. If, for example, an employee utters something particularly egregious, and the employer refuses to reprimand him, it may be enough to justify a claim of harassment.
Preventing a Hostile Work Environment
Employers must take necessary steps to prevent unlawful harassment in the workplace. A complaint and grievance process should be in place so that employees know how to report unwanted behaviors, and every employee should receive anti-harassment training. Employers should take immediate action when an employee complains of harassment, and should create an environment in which employees feel comfortable about addressing their concerns.
If you are being harassed at work, inform the harasser that you want the conduct to stop immediately. Also report the harassment to management as soon as possible to prevent the problem from escalating. If your efforts to stop the harassment are unsuccessful, contact a MA employment law attorney today. Continue reading