Just because someone annoys you at work or slights you in some way doesn't mean there's a hostile work environment. Federal law under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 clearly defines what creates a hostile work environment. A good analogy for one is when you feel as if going to work is similar to living in a prison camp, where people insult and belittle you just because of your sex, disability, race or one of the other protected classes under federal law.
Under federal law, there are two causes for a hostile work environment. The tit-for-tat type of harassment that makes conditions of your employment, raises or other treatment based upon your acceptance or rejection of unwelcome conduct is prohibited by federal law because it creates a hostile work environment. Co-workers or managers that continually belittle, harass, insult or make lewd comments about other co-workers on the basis of skin color, race, national origin, age, disability, religion or gender identity also contribute to the creation of a hostile work environment.
A hostile work environment begins with discriminatory behavior. Under federal law, it's the responsibility of the employer to ensure that all employees enjoy a work environment free from discrimination. Most companies have strict policies on employee conduct, especially with respect to this type of harassment. Besides being illegal, it's just not proper behavior to discriminate against someone because she's different. It's against the law to treat a co-worker poorly because she practices a different religion, comes from another country, has a disability or a different skin color.
Civil Rights laws guarantee your right to work in a hostile-free work environment. While isolated incidents don't qualify as contributing to a hostile work environment, when the harassment toward you or other co-workers persists and is severe enough, you have a right to file a harassment complaint. Follow your company's guidelines outlined in your employee handbook to make a complaint internally. If your company doesn't respond or the harassment continues, you have other options.
You have the right to file a complaint of discrimination or hostile work environment with your state's labor department or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the legal agency created for this purpose under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The agency will make a determination based on your complaint and will ask you to settle the dispute through mediation, pursue legal charges against your organization or allow you to sue in a court of law.
It's illegal if your employer retaliates against you in some way because you filed a charge of discrimination. If you lose your employment or feel as if you must quit because you can no longer tolerate working in such a hostile environment, you can file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In one such situation, a disabled veteran wasn't provided reasonable work accommodations and was continually harassed by his co-workers and supervisors to the point that he quit after exhausting all options. When he took his claim to the EEOC, the case was won in court.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Harassment
- U.S. Department of Labor: What Do I Need to Know About Workplace Harassment
- Undercover Lawyer: Is a Prison Camp Comparable to Living Through a Hostile Work Environment?
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Filing a Charge of Discrimination
- Columbus Business First: Vet Disability Discrimination Case Shows Risks of Hostile Work Environment
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