Hostile Work Environments and Harassment
One of the most common examples of hostile work environments is harassment. Not every harassed employee enjoys special legal protection in the workplace, however, because in order to be legal examples of hostile work environments, the harassment must be directed against a member of a protected class. Legally protected classes include gender, race, religion, and disability.
Besides being directed against a member of a protected class, harassment needs to pertain to the protected status of the target. For example, if a woman being harassed is targeted because of where she lives, not because of her gender, the case would not qualify as one of the examples of hostile work environments. If a pattern of sexual innuendo or inappropriate contact occurred, however, that would be sexual harassment, especially if the incidents were duly documented and reported.
Another requirement to establish harassment is a pattern of behavior, not just a single event. If the offensive behavior occurred only once or twice, a case alleging harassment usually will not be successful. The obvious exception to that rule is when physical contact is involved in the case of sexual harassment.
All employees need to know that they work in a respectful environment where they can focus on their work. An employee that is afraid to go to work because of the intimidating conduct of co-worker or supervisor is likely dealing with a hostile work environment even if the situation does not meet federal guidelines for harassment. Harassment not covered by official government legislation is still harassment, however, and can potentially be pursued in a variety of civil or criminal actions. Meanwhile, employees experiencing harassment should be careful not to react in a hostile manner as courts often consider employee behavior when entertaining workplace litigation.
Employers need sensitivity training to understand that harassment goes beyond behavior against protected classes and can result in legal action against the company or the manager involved in creating a hostile work environment.
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