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Is your office a hostile work environment?

Florida law has a specific definition of what constitutes a hostile work environment. Find out if yours qualifies.

Your boss is a bully. Your co-workers yell at you one day, ignore you the next – and one of them’s leaving offensive notes in your in-box. And none of it shows any sign of stopping anytime soon. Is your office a hostile work environment?

Maybe. But like so many terms used by lawyers, the phrase “hostile work environment” has a specific legal meaning. It’s not applicable to a workplace just because your coworkers are mean and petty people, for example. Just because a workplace is intimidating, stressful or unpleasant doesn’t make it hostile, at least not from a legal perspective.

In order to legally qualify as a hostile work environment, a workplace has to meet three criteria:

  • There must be discriminatory conduct or behavior in the workplace;
  • This conduct must be unwelcome or offensive to employees; and
  • The discrimination mentioned above must be based on protected class status.

In plain English, that means the person filing the complaint has to be a member of a protected class (we’ll get to what that means shortly), and the conduct in question has to relate to that. For example, if only female employees are expected to clean the office break room at the end of the day, that’s discriminatory behavior based on gender – which makes it a valid basis for a hostile work environment claim.

However, a single incident of your boss asking you to clean the break room does not constitute a hostile work environment all on its own. The behavior in question has to be pervasive – in other words, it has to be part of a larger pattern of behavior, and not a one-time-only event. There are exceptions, however: incidents of sexual harassment directed from a senior employee to a more junior one are exempted from this requirement, based on the assumption that it would automatically create a hostile environment for the junior worker, due to the potential for job-related consequences or retaliation for rebuffing it.

Not only that, but the pattern of behavior has to cause an unreasonable degree of disruption in the work of the targeted employee. The harassed worker also has to have good reason to believe that the behavior will continue indefinitely.

After reading all this, it may seem like anyone hoping to file a hostile workplace claim has a high set of hurdles to clear first. And that’s true, to an extent. However, some elements of these cases are easier to meet. For example, there’s no required form for the harassment to take – no matter whether it’s verbal, nonverbal or physical harassment, the court will still take the same dim view of it.

What about sexual harassment?

As mentioned above, sexual harassment definitely counts as a hostile work environment. However, it’s important to remember that not all hostile workplace situations include sexual harassment.

It’s also important to keep in mind that sexual harassment doesn’t necessarily have to come from a manager or senior employee. It’s quite possible to suffer sexual harassment at the hands of equals – or sometimes even subordinates. These situations are actually more common than many people think, and can certainly leave an employer vulnerable to a hostile work environment claim.

What’s a protected class?

The term “protected class” refers to groups of people protected from discrimination and harassment based on certain traits. Currently, protected class status prohibits discrimination on the basis of the following characteristics:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Color

If you believe you are enduring a hostile work environment and would like to do something about it, call Wenzel Fenton today. We’ve helped thousands of Floridians win employment-related cases, and we can do the same for you.

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