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A hostile work environment is one in which the victim feels continually harassed or made to feel uncomfortable due to actions based on the employee's protected status. This takes the form of jokes, derogatory comments, or other actions focused on things such as gender, sexuality, or religion. A common example is constant or recurring sexually inappropriate jokes or comments, constituting sexual harassment. Proving a hostile work environment depends on proving the employer's culpability in creating said environment.
What Constitutes a Hostile Environment?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Titles VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age of Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA)."
To qualify, the harassment must be based on one of these protected classes, such as race, religion, sex, age, or disability. This harassment takes the form of a hostile work environment only when enduring the harassment is a condition of continued employment and is so pervasive that a reasonable person finds it abusive or intimidating.
The law also protects from harassment individuals who filed charges of discrimination or who testified or participated in an investigation into discrimination. It does not protect against isolated incidents (unless these are very serious) or petty slights and annoyances.
Filing an Internal Complaint
If you feel safe doing so, the first step should always be speaking to the perpetrator of the harassment and asking him or her to stop. If you did this and the behavior continued, or if you did not because you were afraid for your safety, file an internal complaint as per your organization's proper channels. Follow your company's protocol exactly and request that a copy of your complaint be included in your employee file. Create a copy for your own records as well.This step not only gives the company its chance to resolve the problem, it also protects your rights.
A hostile work environment claim depends upon proving the employer's liability. Filing an internal complaint proves that the company knew of the issue. If no action is taken, or the company retaliates against you, your formal complaint establishes legal culpability. You also open the possibility of collecting punitive damages. These serve as a form of punishment against an employer for egregious behavior.
Filing an Administrative Complaint
Any workplace discrimination victim, under which hostile work environment claims reside, must first file an administrative complaint with the EEOC , as well as with the claimant's relevant state agency if applicable. If you forego this step and move directly to filing a lawsuit, the court will throw out your suit.
Upon receiving your complaint, the EEOC notifies your employer and then begins investigating your claim. This takes the form of interviewing your employer and any witnesses, as well as reviewing any evidence you submit with your claim. The EEOC may request mediation in an attempt to come to a settlement. The process typically takes 90 days and, upon its completion, the EEOC issues its decision and a right-to-sue letter. Upon receipt of this letter, you may file a lawsuit (even if the agency dismisses your complaint).
If you have not already done so, this is the time to hire an employment attorney. Time constraints are strict at this stage of your complaint; an attorney ensures no deadlines are missed.
When Can You Sue?
If you made your employer aware that you worked in a hostile environment and your employer took no corrective action, and you completed the administrative complaint process, you may file suit against your employer. A successful suit depends upon your ability to prove you experienced offensive, unwelcome, pervasive conduct which negatively impacted your work environment. Said conduct must meet the further criteria that the conduct focused on a protected characteristic, such as race or religion.
Careful documentation of your harassment helps prove your case, including each step of the process: filing your formal, internal complaint; filing the administrative complaint; and filing your lawsuit. Keep a journal, noting date, time, and a description of each instance of harassment. Additionally, include details regarding your attempts to address the harassment with both your harasser and your employer, including the response, or lack thereof, you received.
Schedule a Free Consultation
If you are the victim of a hostile work environment, schedule a free consultation with an employment lawyer. Bring your journal documenting the harassment to help the attorney advise you on the merits of your case.