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Frequently Asked Questions About Hostile Work Environments

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What are some examples of behavior that could create a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment can arise from any verbal or physical conduct that is based on or related to an employee’s protected status, such as race, national origin, religion, sex, age, or disability. As a result, some examples of behavior that can give rise to a hostile work environment include:

  • Making remarks about a person’s body
  • Inappropriate and/or unwanted physical touching
  • Sexual comments, gestures, or jokes
  • Derogatory words, phrases, or epithets
  • Making remarks about a person’s skin color, nationality, or religion (including a person’s lack of religious beliefs)
  • Use of gestures or imagery that would offend a particular protected group
  • Derogatory or intimidating comments about a person’s impairment, including commenting about a person’s difficulty with tasks or need for accommodations or time off

Can a hostile work environment be created only by my supervisor or the company’s managers?

A hostile work environment can be created by employees at any level of a company. Comments or conduct by an employee’s immediate co-workers can give rise to a hostile work environment; this environment can be facilitated by supervisors or managers when they know of the comments or conduct and fail to take steps to remedy the situation.

Of course, supervisors and managers can create a hostile work environment on their own by making comments, taking employment actions, or adopting policies that target an employee or multiple employees on the basis of some protected status.

I was offended by something a co-worker said. Do I have a hostile work environment case?

Not necessarily. Courts have ruled that the laws that prohibit hostile work environments are not meant to be a “civility code”. Isolated or offhand incidents of teasing, offending comments, or offending behavior typically do not give rise to a hostile work environment.

Instead, a hostile work environment is only created if a comment or incident of conduct is so objectively severely offensive as to change the conditions of your employment, or if a series of comments or incidents are sufficiently severe and/or frequent enough.

What should I do if I feel my workplace is a hostile work environment?

If you feel you are being subjected to a hostile work environment, the first step you can take is to address your concerns with the person or persons responsible for the comments or conduct that you find offensive. They may have innocently failed to recognize that their behavior was harassing or offensive.

Alternatively, you can report your concerns to your employer, who should have policies and procedures in place for reporting harassing or offensive conduct. Typically, you would report your concerns to your immediate supervisor, or to your supervisor’s supervisor or your employer’s human resources department, especially if your supervisor is responsible for the conduct that you are reporting.

You may also want to consider seeking out legal representation as you pursue a claim for a hostile work environment. An attorney can help you report a hostile work environment to your employer, and can look out for signs that your employer may be retaliating against you for your complaint, such as transferring, demoting, or terminating you.

If you need to pursue a legal claim for a hostile work environment, an attorney can file and pursue a claim on your behalf.

Can my employer reassign, transfer, demote, or fire me for complaining about a hostile work environment?

No. If you report to your employer that you believe you are being subjected to a hostile work environment, your employer cannot take an adverse employment action, such as reassigning you, demoting you, reducing your pay, denying you a raise, or terminating your employment, in response to your complaint. Such action would constitute retaliation, which is prohibited by law.

Your employer may take such actions if they are motivated by legitimate reasons and not connected to your complaint of a hostile work environment. However, your employer cannot use such reasons as a pretext when an adverse employment action is in reality motivated by retaliation for your complaint. Evidence of pretext may include the timing of such actions, comments made in connection with such actions, or negative performance evaluations that are seemingly “out of the blue”.

Do I have to stay in my job if I feel my workplace is a hostile work environment?

An employee is not required to endure a hostile work environment, especially after providing his or her employer with notice of the hostile work environment when the employer fails to take action to remedy the situation.

If you feel that the hostile work environment at your place of work has become so severe or pervasive that you can no longer endure the situation and you resign your employment as a result, your resignation may be found to have been a “constructive termination” of your employment by your employer; a constructive termination involves any situation where an employee is forced to resign his or her employment due to the acts or omissions of his or her employer.

Being subjected to a constructive termination of your employment may entitle you to monetary damages through a hostile work environment lawsuit.

If I didn’t report my concerns to my employer or supervisor, do I still have a hostile work environment claim?

If you do not report a hostile work environment to your supervisor or employer, it may impact your ability to later bring a hostile work environment claim.

Courts have ruled that an employer has an affirmative defense against an employee’s hostile work environment claim if that employee was subjected to discrimination by a coworker and the employee “unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.”

If, however, the harasser is a supervisor and the employee fails to report the hostile work environment, the employee still may be able to assert a claim.

If your employer has policies and procedures in place for reporting conduct that gives rise to a hostile work environment and you fail to take advantage of those procedures, it could be fatal to a later legal claim. However, you may still have a viable claim if your employer does not have formal reporting procedures or if you can show that your employer had actual knowledge of the hostile work environment from some other source.

Contact a Hostile Work Environment Lawyer in Des Moines

No one deserves to work in a hostile work environment. It can have a detrimental impact on your emotional well-being, your career, and your livelihood. Fortunately, you can take legal steps to remedy the situation if your employer refuses to do so. Contact a Des Moines employment lawyer at Higgins Law Firm, PLLC to discuss your situation in detail during a confidential consultation. We can be reached online through our contact forms or by calling (515) 619-9148 today.