What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment

There is probably no more misused term or misunderstood concept in most workforces than "hostile environment".  For a whole generation of workers this term has become synonymous with harsh supervisors or rude co-workers. Legally that is just dead wrong.  Often complaints come in to HR departments using the "hostile environment" term as a hot-button to spur action against the offending supervisor or co-worker. It is the hollow "gotcha" of employee complaints.

So here's the problem: there is no law against being an awful boss or a toxic co-worker unless the harassing behavior is based upon some protected class status.  A friend of mine is a great labor lawyer in Nashville who coined "The SOB Defense"  which goes something like this: "Yes, Your Honor, my client is a Son of a Bitch...to young, old, black, white, male, female, Jew, Gentile, and everyone in between." In other words, as long as you are a jerk to everybody then being a jerk is not illegal.

An exception to this concept is sexual harassment: where the hostile environment is made so by unwanted sexual attention or information in the workplace.  While technically gender-based, anyone of either gender can find the sexual attention or information unwelcome, so even if everyone is offended it is still harassment.

So how do you know when an unpleasant environment is a hostile environment?
  • If you are the only person of your demographic in the work group (only woman, only non-white, only person over 40, etc...) and you are the only person experiencing the hostility.
  • If you and the other people who look like you receive unfavorable treatment but others do not.
  • If the unpleasant behavior is of a sexual nature.
Otherwise you work for or with a jerk.  That stinks, but it isn't illegal.  Find another job and walk out with your head held high and your middle finger held higher.


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