We often think of bullying as an adolescent impulse – one most commonly seen in the schoolyard, the classroom – and now – the internet. But the truth is that the proclivity to intimidate, abuse, or harass has no age limit, and you will often find it lurking in just about any professional work environment – from warehouses to retail stores to the most lustrous corporate offices you can set foot in. At Agemian Law Group, we know far too well that bullying can – and does – occur in all places of work. When this type of behavior is so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile work environment (HWE), then it could be grounds for a lawsuit.
If you’re being harassed to the point of dreading going to work every day, you may be working in a hostile work environment. But what does “hostile” mean, exactly, in this context? Rudeness, personality conflicts, or occasional jokes – even if annoying, distasteful, or mildly offensive – usually do not constitute a hostile work environment. But if those jokes or conflicts are particularly malicious, frequent, and are motivated by bigotry or discrimination, then that’s different. Many people spend roughly one-third of their day at work – that’s a sizable portion of one’s life to be clouded by abuse and hostility. No one deserves to go through that, and our hostile work environment attorneys at Agemian Law Group will ensure that you don’t have to tolerate it, either. There are, however, a lot of layers to this area of the law, which is why we’re here to help you determine your best course of action.
We’re sure you have questions -- in fact, you may never have thought that you’d need the help of an attorney before your accident or incident occurred. Agemian Law Group is here to help you make sense of what’s next.
A hostile work environment is a form of workplace harassment – either sexual or non-sexual in nature – that makes it extremely difficult or uncomfortable for another person to work in. To constitute a hostile work environment, there are two overarching criteria to consider. First, the behavior must discriminate against a protected class under California state laws (namely, the Fair Employment and Housing Act or “FEHA”), which covers discrimination based on:
Second, the behavior must be severe and/or frequent enough to significantly offend, humiliate, distress, or intrude upon a person’s sense of well-being and their ability to perform their job. Typical examples of harassing behavior that is considered hostile if it occurs repeatedly or is particularly cruel can include:
Courts in California will consider the severity, frequency, and context of the conduct in question. It’s essentially a balancing act between these elements to determine if you have a case: the more severe the conduct (i.e. non-consensual physical touching), the less frequent it needs occur to be legally considered a hostile work environment. However, milder behaviors such as derogatory comments can be considered hostile if they happen frequently enough.
Moreover, to be considered illegal, the work environment needs to be both subjectively and objectively hostile. Subjectively, the behavior needs to be “unwelcome” to the victim – meaning that it caused them emotional distress and affected their ability to perform their job. At the same time, the behavior must be such that any reasonable person would find it hostile, intimidating, or offensive.
It’s important to be able to distinguish between a hostile work environment and a situation that is merely difficult or annoying. Even offhand comments that can be construed as discriminatory or sexist will usually not be enough to constitute a hostile work environment if they only occur once or twice. Unfortunately, there’s no cut and dried method for legally determining harassment, but generally speaking, offensive conduct doesn’t qualify as HWE harassment if it is occasional, isolated, sporadic, or trivial.
Moreover, the harassment must be discriminatory based on certain protected characteristics such as age, race, or religion to be considered illegal. So, for example, if a coffee shop manager is constantly mean to his entire night crew because they fail to close up properly, then that is not considered illegal because the hostility is not motivated by an unlawful reason.
A hostile work environment can be created by virtually anyone in the workplace. This includes supervisors, co-workers, and even individuals who are not employees such as independent contractors, clients, and customers.
If the perpetrator is a supervisor, then the employer is held strictly liable for the conduct, meaning that they will be responsible for paying for the victim’s damages. If the perpetrator is a co-worker or another non-supervisory individual, then the employer would only be held liable if they acted negligently – meaning they knew about the harassing behavior and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.
Employers in California have a legal duty to provide a harassment free environment, which includes preventing foreseeable harassment, correcting harassment as soon as it’s reported, and properly training employees and supervisors about harassment.
The first thing you should do is report the behavior in writing to your company. This written complaint will show that you find the behavior hostile and will be essential in pursuing a hostile work environment case. If your employer has a harassment policy in place or outlines a procedure for reporting it, review it and follow it accordingly.
If you wish to sue your employer, supervisor, or co-worker for creating a hostile work environment, you will first need to file a written complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (the “DFEH”) in order to receive a right-to-sue letter (this is essentially the same process as filing a harassment claim or discrimination claim with the DFEH). One of our experienced HWE attorneys will be able to guide you through this process.
Damages in a hostile work environment lawsuit
Victims of a hostile work environment may be entitled to the following damages for their losses if their claim is successful:
Retaliation is illegal
If an employee reports a hostile work environment, it is unlawful for their employer to retaliate. This can include purposefully worsening the employee’s working conditions or forcing them to quit through further harassment or intimidation. All employees have legal rights that protect them from workplace retaliation, wrongful termination, or adverse employment actions when reporting HWE or filing hostile workplace lawsuits.
How much does a hostile work environment lawyer cost?
At Agemian Law Group, if we take your hostile work environment case, we’re confident enough to work it on what’s called contingency. That means that we take 100% of our fees from the settlement you win at the end of the process. If we don’t win you a settlement, you don’t owe us a single dollar.
That’s not the case for all employment law attorneys -- some only work on an hourly basis, which can rack up massive fees and even keep justice out of reach for those who don’t have the means to afford it up-front. At Agemian Law Group, we believe that justice should be available to everyone, regardless of your current financial means, which is why we gladly work on contingency.