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Employers: What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

As an employer, "hostile work environment" is a phrase you've probably heard many times. But do you really know what it means?

If you don't, you probably should. Maintaining a hostile work environment at your business can create liability for harassment claims and other employee lawsuits. Equally as important: It can lead to unhappy employees and lower productivity.

But you can't prevent what you aren't looking for. So what exactly is a hostile work environment?

  • Need legal advice on how your small business should operate? Consult with an experienced business attorney about your options.

What Makes for a Hostile Work Environment

First, it may help to consider what doesn't create a hostile work environment. Contrary to what some employees might think, a rude supervisor, an annoying coworker, or an isolated incident generally won't create a hostile work environment.

According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a hostile work environment:

  • Involves "unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information"; and
  • Occurs when "enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment" or the conduct creates an environment "that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive."

Alright, but what does that mean?

Examples of Offensive Conduct

The EEOC gives some examples of the type of conduct that can create a hostile work environment. These include:

  • Offensive jokes;
  • Slurs, epithets, or name calling;
  • Physical assaults or threats;
  • Intimidation;
  • Ridicule or mockery;
  • Insults or put-downs;
  • Offensive objects or pictures; and
  • Interference with work performance.

This conduct can be on the part of supervisors, coworkers, agents of the employer, and even non-employees. The conduct also doesn't necessarily need to be offensive to the person it's directed toward, but can also be offensive to employees who observe it.

Prevention is the best way to avoid liability for a hostile work environment. If you discover or receive reports of harassment at your business, prompt action should always be taken to correct it.

And on that point: Don't just dismiss a worker's complaints as "no big deal," especially if the worker has evidence he or she is being harassed. As one recent case shows, failing to act can cost your business, big-time.

Editor's Note June 24, 2014: This post was updated to further clarify the EEOC's definition of a hostile work environment.

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