Hostile Work Environment

The phrase hostile work environment is a civil law term that refers to the behavior of an individual in a workplace that creates an environment that makes work difficult or uncomfortable for another person. This includes behavior that may leave another employee feeling afraid or violated. Such offensive behavior happens in many forms, including sexual harassment. To explore this concept, consider the following hostile work environment definition.

Definition of Hostile Work Environment


  1. Unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated in their place of employment.

What is a Hostile Work Environment

When an individual in the workplace feels scared, intimidated, or uncomfortable due to abuse or intimidation by a coworker, it creates what is called a hostile work environment. While any number of behaviors might create a hostile work environment, any conduct or actions that create an environment in which an employee dreads going to work is generally seen to create such a setting.

A hostile work environment is sometimes referred to as an “offensive work environment,” or an “abusive work environment.” The individual causing a hostile work environment may be an employee, a supervisor, an owner, or even and independent contractor. There are federal and state laws in place to protect employees from being subjected to workplace hostility.

Steps to Deal with a Hostile Work Environment

There are certain steps for anyone experiencing a situation that makes their work environment difficult or unbearable. These are centered around giving notice that the behavior is unwanted, and documenting the behavior. Steps to deal with a hostile work environment include:

  1. Ask the employee or other person to stop the behavior, and document the request. If the victim feels too afraid or too intimidated to make this request himself, he should ask his direct supervisor or human resources to make the request.
  2. Keep a log of incidents involving harassment or abuse, including the dates, times, and circumstances. Keep copies of offending communications, such as emails, text messages, voicemail messages, notes, and gifts.
  3. If the offending employee does not stop the behavior, report the issue to a supervisor, supplying him with any proof of the behavior, and let him know you have already asked that the employee stop.
  4. If the offending employee continues the behavior, or begins other harassing behavior in retribution, report this circumstance again to the supervisor.
  5. If, after following the chain of command as outlined in the company’s guidelines, the offending employee continues in unacceptable behavior, and the employer does not take definitive steps to stop the behavior, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It should be noted that if, at any time, the offensive behavior rises to the level of breaking the law, or of truly making the victim fear for his or her safety, the incidents should be reported to the police. A copy of the police report should then be given to the employer as a part of the ongoing hostile work environment complaint.

If the offensive actions branch out from the workplace to the victim’s home or other activities, a police report should be made immediately. In such cases, a restraining order can be obtained through the court system. To obtain information and forms for requesting a restraining order, the victim may visit the state’s court system website, or making a phone call to the state court civil clerk’s office

For example:

Alonzo began making advances toward Julia a mere three days into his new job. After rejecting Alonzo’s actions and requests for a date, Julia started receiving suggestive email messages in her company account. When, a few weeks later, Alonzo started leaving little gifts on her desk, Julia sent an email to Alonzo making it clear that she wasn’t interested in a personal relationship, and asking him to stop all of his actions toward her.

When Julia received text messages from Alonzo, trying to jeer her into paying attention to him, Julia took her complaint to the company’s human services department. A few days later, after human services had apparently spoken to Alonzo, he began leaving notes on her car, and one day showed up at her son’s little league game, making a point to sit near Julia and make suggestive comments to her. Julia then became scared that Alonzo might do something to harm her or her children, so she made a police report.

Julia provided a copy of the police report, as well as copies of all of the emails and messages she had saved, as well as her log of events, to her employer. Julia was pleased to learn the next morning that Alonzo had been fired for creating a hostile work environment.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is a federal agency tasked with enforcing civil rights laws as they apply to employment, including workplace discrimination and hostility. The EEOC investigates complaints made by employees who feel they have been discriminated against based on their race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion, or disability.

The EEOC also investigates reports of retaliation against an employee who has filed a complaint of discrimination or hostile work environment. The EEOC often acts as mediator in settling discrimination complaints, and the agency has the authority to file civil lawsuits against employers on behalf of employee victims.

Hostile Work Environment Laws

The federal laws enforced by the EEOC are related to discrimination in the workplace, which often applies where a person feels he is working in a hostile or uncomfortable environment. Other hostile work environment laws are left to the individual states, both to legislate, and to enforce. State hostile work environment laws also protect employees facing retaliation for having reported a violation of anti-discrimination laws.

Laws governing harassment and discrimination in the workplace are civil in nature, meaning that a victim has the right to file a civil lawsuit if any of these laws have been violated. To be successful in a civil lawsuit for harassment, discrimination, or creating a hostile work environment, the victim must generally prove certain elements:

  • The hostile acts discriminated against the victim, based on age, sex, religion, race, disability, or other protected trait.
  • The acts were severe enough to disrupt the employee’s work or productivity
  • The acts were continuous, occurring regularly or frequently over a period of time, and not limited to one or two occurrences or remarks.
  • The employer, which was advised of the situation, failed to intervene or take appropriate action to stop the behavior or acts.
  • The victim employee reasonably believed that tolerating the abusive behavior was necessary for continued employment.

For example:

Mary is hired on with a big accounting firm, after seeking employment with the firm for over a year. After signing her employment contract, Mary began being subjected to derogatory remarks made by Brad, another accountant. Brads remarks began as sexually suggestive remarks then, when Mary ignored him, his comments quickly turned into a constant barrage of Mary’s ability to perform her job because she’s a woman.

Mary asked Brad to just leave her alone, but his offensive behavior continued, and it wasn’t long before Mary began dreading work each morning at a job she had dreamed of for over a year. Mary went to human resources (“HR”) to make a complaint about Brad’s daily behavior, and the HR manager assured Mary she would take care of the problem.

The harassment continued, and after another month, Mary was stressed past her limit. Mary was afraid to complain to HR again because Brad had been with the company for nearly eight years, and she was afraid she would be fired for complaining. Mary has grounds to file a civil lawsuit against both Brad and the company, which did not take adequate action to stop Brad from harassing her.

Employer Liability

In many cases, a hostile work environment is created by an employer, supervisor, or business owner. In such cases, the employer is automatically accountable for the harassing actions that result in an adverse employment action, such as termination of employment. Such actions also include failing to hire or promote an individual, or reducing an employees wages or benefits for reasons that are discriminatory, or retaliative in nature.

If a supervisor’s actions create a hostile work environment for any employee, the employer will be held responsible unless it can prove the following:

  1. The employer promptly made a reasonable attempt to correct the harassing behavior;
  2. The supervisor’s superior made a reasonable attempt to prevent or correct the harassing behavior, or that the employee failed to take advantage of corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

Employer liability can become an even greater issue if the management team fails to make prompt and reasonable attempts to correct the problem, and a complaint is filed with the EEOC.

Civil Lawsuit for Supervisor-Caused Hostile Work Environment

In 1986, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a case that established the standards for determining when an employer would be held liable for sexual harassment, which is a violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1764.

After being fired from her job for excessive use of sick leave, bank employee Mechelle Vinson was sexually harassed by the Vice President of Meritor Savings Bank, Sidney Taylor, and that he had coerced her into engaging in sexual relations with him while at work.

Vinson filed a civil lawsuit against Taylor and the bank, seeking an injunction against terminating her employment, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. In her civil lawsuit complaint, Vinson claimed the two had engaged in sexual intercourse more than 40 times, and that her superior touched her in public, and that he had raped her on more than one occasion.

Because Vinson felt that acquiescence was necessary to keep her job, she claimed that the sexual harassment created a hostile work environment. She claimed, in her complaint, that the VP’s behavior violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that she was entitled to damages against both the defendant and the bank itself. The court disagreed, however, and denied Vinson’s claim, ruling that the sexual relationship was voluntary, and had no actual influence on her employment status with the bank. The court also noted that, because the bank had been unaware of the behaviors, it could not be held liable.

Vinson appealed the ruling, claiming that the Vice President’s actions did indeed create a hostile work environment which violated her civil rights. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision on the basis that, if Vinson was made to believe that tolerating sexual harassment was a condition of her continued employment, the fact that it was voluntary was made irrelevant.

The bank then appealed the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to render a decision on whether a hostile work environment was a form of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and whether the Act is limited to “tangible economic discrimination” in the workplace.

After careful review, the Court held that their job was to strike out discrimination and unequal treatment of men and women in the workplace. It also pointed out that the EEOC produced guidelines that specified actions considered to be harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even if those actions did not lead to economic injury.

The court determined that plaintiffs can establish that a violation of the Act occurred “by proving that discrimination based on sex has created a hostile or abusive work environment.” Such a burden of proof can be met by proving that:

  • The behavior created a hostile work environment
  • The behavior was unwelcome
  • The behavior was severe, or it was pervasive
  • The behavior was based on the plaintiff’s gender

 Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Civil Law – The body of law dealing with criminal offenses and their punishment.
  • Civil Lawsuits – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • JurisdictionThe legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.