Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment

You are protected from harassment at work. If you believe you have been subject to a hostile work environment, our experienced attorneys can help.

You have probably heard of a “hostile work environment.” However, workers are not legally protected when they feel uncomfortable at work. Some uncomfortable work environments are a hostile work environment as the term is used in the law, but some uncomfortable work environments are legal. Typically, to be legally prohibited, the hostile work environment must be based on a “protected category,” such as race or gender, or a “protected activity,” such as requesting medical leave or reporting fraud.

Sexual harassment is a specific form of sex discrimination. It occurs when supervisory employees create or tolerate a work environment that is hostile to an employee because of that employee’s sex or gender. Members of every gender, including men and women, can be victims of sexual harassment. Actions that can contribute to a hostile environment include sexual assaults or offensive touching of employees, demanding sexual favors from subordinates, and sexually oriented statements, comments, jokes, or pictures that are intended to create an intimidating or offensive workplace. In some, but not all, cases, the employer is responsible for the acts of its supervisors in creating or tolerating a hostile environment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has drawn an important distinctions between situations involving only a hostile work environment, and cases where sexual harassment culminates in a “tangible employment action.” Typically a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a change in benefits, is “tangible.” If a supervisor takes a tangible employment action against the employee, the employer is responsible.

Where there is only a hostile work environment, the employer is still responsible if it created or maintained that environment through official, authorized actions. But if the employer was reasonably careful to prevent and correct promptly the harassment, and the harassed employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities the employer provided to stop the harassment or help the employee, the employer may not be responsible. For example, if the employer has announced a sexual harassment policy, and that policy tells employees who to complain to about harassment, an employee who does not lodge a complaint, and has no excuse for not lodging the complaint, will not be able to hold the employer responsible.

A hostile work environment must be sufficiently serious and pervasive before it will be considered illegal. While there is no clear standard for how much harassment makes an environment truly hostile, a single off-color joke will ordinarily not be enough. The supervisor’s conduct must also be offensive to a reasonable person. An employee who is unusually sensitive, or who is offended by conduct that doesn’t bother most people, will have a more difficult time winning a sexual harassment case.

If you believe you have been a victim of a hostile work environment, our attorneys can help you understand your rights and fight back.