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What’s the Definition of a Hostile Work Environment?

Torn business envelope with the words Workplace Harassment printed in red.

Know your rights and legal options under West Virginia and federal law

Most people who have been in the workforce for a while have been in at least one unpleasant work environment. Many of us have dealt with screaming bosses, argumentative coworkers, angry customers, and other rude or aggressive behavior. It’s only natural to wonder whether you have legal recourse in this situation.

While the phrase “hostile work environment” often gets thrown around in these situations, to qualify as a hostile environment in a legal sense, your job must fit certain specific criteria. It’s not against the law to be a jerk. However, if you think your situation does fit the criteria for a hostile work environment, talk to a workplace harassment attorney right away about your legal options.

The difference between “hostile” and just “difficult”

Again, it’s generally not against the law for people in your workplace to be rude, angry, loud, or aggressive. In order to qualify as a hostile work environment, the conduct you’re subject to must be severe and pervasive enough to significantly alter your ability to do your job.

In addition, a hostile work environment is generally based on a pattern. A single incident is usually not enough to establish a hostile work environment. But if you’re subject to offensive or intimidating comments every day, at some point, that does rise to the level of a hostile work environment.

Note that while a single incident is usually not enough to establish a hostile work environment, there are exceptions if the behavior is truly severe. If you are physically assaulted at work, for example, you may have a claim on the basis of that incident alone.

Protected characteristics and protected activities

To be legally actionable, the hostile behavior must be based on a protected characteristic or protected activity.

For instance, if your boss is rude to everyone, regardless of race, gender, or religion, then they’re not necessarily breaking the law (although they’re certainly a bad boss). But if your boss’s hostile behavior is targeted at employees of a particular race, gender, religion, or another protected characteristic, then that may be illegal harassment. The same is true if your workplace is full of symbols that disparage a particular race, gender, or religion, or if there is a pattern of comments targeting employees based on their protected characteristics.

You may also have a claim if the hostile conduct is in retaliation for a protected activity, such as requesting FMLA leave, requesting reasonable accommodations under the ADA, reporting workplace safety concerns, or filing a workers’ compensation claim.

Perhaps the best-known type of hostile work environment is sexual harassment. If your workplace is full of sexualized banter, sexual imagery, innuendo, and so on, you may have a sexual harassment claim. The same is true if you are constantly subjected to sexual comments or unwanted advances.

If you’re in a hostile work environment, contact us right away

In summary, the legal definition of  “hostile work environment” has two key criteria:

  • You are subject to harassment that is so severe and pervasive that it alters your ability to do your job, and
  • The harassment is targeted based on a protected category or in retaliation for a protected activity.

If you’re in this situation, you need to do two things right away. First, document the harassment. That means putting it in writing in a place that your employer doesn’t control. It also means getting names and contact information for any witnesses — who may include trusted coworkers, clients, vendors, and others who may have witnessed the hostile behavior. Remember, to have a viable claim, you usually have to prove a pattern of behavior, so you need documentation over a significant period of time.

Second, contact an experienced harassment attorney. We’d be honored to listen to your story and explain your legal rights and options. Give us a call or contact us online for a free case evaluation with a member of our legal team.

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