A hostile work environment can be demeaning and devastating — but to win in court you need to prove more than just discrimination
A work environment that’s run by a supervisor who is obnoxious or offensive is no laughing matter. Nobody should have to put up with that sort of behavior, especially at the office. But just because a workplace is deeply unpleasant doesn’t mean that the law will see it as a “hostile work environment”, which is what an employee needs to prove in order to win a claim against their employer in court.
Instead, the law in Georgia — which, like other states really means the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which hears these sorts of complaints — provides a very specific definition of a hostile work environment. This definition is comprised of five essential criteria:
Protected Groups or Adverse Employment Outcomes
The first requirement is that the objectionable conduct needs to be related to the employee’s membership in a specific protected group. Several protected groups qualify for this protection including those based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion and national origin.
General harassment that isn’t related to one of these identities requires that the claimant show that she was subject to adverse treatment (or an adverse employment outcome, such as being fired, laid off, not promoted or denied a particular job assignment) that other non-protected co-workers doing the same work were not subject to.
Second, the complained-of conduct must rise to the level of harassment. Harassment can be either verbal or physical, but in either case, it must be related to the employee’s protected identity. Harassment such as inappropriate sexualized touching of a female employee, or comments suggesting that an older employee’s age precludes him from competently carrying out his duties, clearly qualify as inappropriate.
Third, the harassment must be pervasive. Pervasive in this context might mean that the behavior was exhibited throughout the organization. More typically, however, it refers to the behavior persisting over a significant period of time. This means that a single offensive comment doesn’t by itself create a hostile work environment — but that that same comment, repeated many times over the course of several weeks, might.
Fourth, the hostile behavior must be severe. This typically excludes rudeness and casual joking. Instead, the behavior must intimidating, offensive or abusive and reach the level of unrelenting teasing, mockery or ridicule. A useful test sometimes used by courts in determining the severity of the behavior is whether or not it interfered with the employee’s ability to complete her workplace duties. The ultimate consideration is whether a “reasonable person” would characterize the conduct as abusive or intimidating, and how that “reasonable person” would have been likely to react under the circumstances.
Knowledge or Intent
Finally, the employer must have known — or should have known — about the discriminatory behavior. This is easy when the harasser is in a managerial or superordinate position. But when the offender is a co-worker, the claimant has to prove that the employer was aware of the harassment and also did nothing to prevent it.
Unless all of these requirements are met, a claim of a hostile work environment isn’t likely to be successful. But you can never be certain unless you talk to an expert. John L. Mays is one of Georgia’s top workplace discrimination attorneys. Our team is here to make sure that individuals who’ve been subjected to hostile work environments are properly compensated. Contact us today.