Hostile Work Environment




  • An employer must maintain a work environment free from discrimination and harassment.

  • Who can be sued for hostile work environment?

  • What to do if your employer commits a violation.

Los Angeles Hostile Work Environment Attorney

Every state has laws that govern the workplace. Ever since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, workplaces have been required to follow certain rules when hiring, firing, and otherwise conducting their business. Everyone knows that it is illegal to discriminate when hiring, but most people do not know that discrimination or discriminatory behavior in the workplace can result in severe penalties against the company. The company has a duty to maintain a safe work environment for every employee.

In this article, we will discuss in detail the concept of a hostile work environment and what you can do if you feel you have been the victim of a culture of discrimination or oppression.

Duty to Maintain a Comfortable Work Environment

 Hostile work environment lawsuits are a product of the belief that every American deserves a work environment that is free from discrimination or harassment. The laws that govern these requirements were initially drafted by the federal government, but states have also extended the protections to cover individuals who were not covered in the original text of the law.

California has some of the strictest provisions on the books and some of the farthest-reaching protections. At the federal level, there are only seven protected characteristics:

  • Race/color
  • Creed/religion
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Nation of origin
  • Marital status
  • Disability

The State of California, however, has a loose way of interpreting these characteristics. As an example, California has extended sex and gender discrimination to include the LGBT community, making sexual orientation and gender expression two additional protected characteristics. Additionally, genetic information cannot be used as the basis of discrimination in California nor can an employer discriminate on the basis of a worker’s military status.

Every California business must not only ensure that there is no discrimination when hiring, promoting, or firing employees, but also that the work environment is not a place where discrimination or harassment happens. When they fail in this duty, a Los Angeles employment attorney can help hold them accountable.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

 Again, there are two sets of laws (and sometimes more) for determining the standard by which a determination is made that a work environment is hostile. The oldest laws are federal laws. They are also the least expansive and most restrictive.

Federal law defines a hostile work environment as a place so oppressive that the individual is literally afraid of going to work. The worker cannot do their job and enduring the offensive conduct is a requirement of doing their job, or that the conduct is “severe or pervasive” enough that a reasonable person would find it intimidating.

In other words, the conduct needs to be continual, make a reasonable person afraid, or be a condition of their employment. In some cases, if the conduct is severe enough (like sexual assault), it does not require that the plaintiff show that there was a pattern of discrimination or harassment because that would automatically make a reasonable person afraid to show up at work.

California law is much more expansive and requires a lower threshold of proof than federal law.

California’s Unruh and Fair Employment and Housing Act

In California, The Unruh Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act govern employer-employee relationships. While the text of the law may not seem very different than the federal statutes, the courts have interpreted the law much more broadly than federal courts traditionally have. As an example, the federal statutes still do not recognize LGBT folks as protected under those statutes. It is still legal to discriminate against the LGBT community in several states across the country. Here in California, we interpreted sex and gender protections as protecting the LGBT community.

Hostile Work Environment and Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is the most common reason for hostile work environment lawsuits. A common example would involve an employee reporting an unwelcome sexual advance from another employee or a supervisor. The employee reports this conduct to HR, but the employee who made the unwelcome advance was never notified or reprimanded. The employee continues to make lewd comments or otherwise harass the victim with sexual or romantic overtures.

Under California law, there are two types of sexual harassment that would qualify as producing a hostile work environment. These include the aforementioned example of a hostile work environment and what courts refer to as quid pro quo sexual harassment, or when a supervisor attempts to trade employee benefits or a promotion for sex.

It is important to note that a plaintiff can bring a hostile work environment lawsuit against an employer for the conduct committed by a supervisor, an employee, an independent contractor, or even a member of the public that makes them feel unsafe.

Hostile Work Environment and Race, Age, Disability and More

It helps to see hostile work environments as places where workplace bullying is tolerated and even encouraged. As an example, if a black employee is routinely mocked for their race and other employees make crude or crass jokes about them on a consistent basis, that would be grounds for a hostile work environment lawsuit.

One thing that you should know is that the conduct cannot be an isolated incident, sporadic, trivial, or occasional. The standard of proof is high. It must either be severe or pervasive.

 Hostile Work Environment and LGBT Issues

 California law extends workplace protections to individuals who are gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise believed to be in any of those protected classes by a harassing employee. The law has shown that an employee filing a grievance under California law does not need to be actually gay or transgender to be the victim of workplace harassment. The individual or individuals who are making the harassing comments need to believe that their victim is a member of the protected class.

Who can be Sued for a Hostile Work Environment?

 Actions that create a hostile work environment can be committed by anyone in the workplace. By contrast, quid pro quo sexual harassment generally needs to be committed by someone in a supervisory role or someone who has decision-making power over the plaintiff.

Further, hostile work environment laws extend to any individual who is in the workplace. This not only includes employees who may be equal in rank to the individual filing the lawsuit, but independent contractors, clients, and even customers.

The employer has a duty of care to ensure that all of their employees are safe from harassment, intimidation, and abuse. When they fail in that duty of care, an employee can file a hostile work environment lawsuit against them.

The Role of Negligence in a Hostile Work Environment Lawsuit

 When it comes to quid pro quo sexual harassment, the case is generally much easier to prove. This is because an employer, company, or corporation is held strictly liable for the conduct of their employee. This means that the plaintiff need only prove that the harassment occurred.

This is much different than a hostile work environment lawsuit. If an employee is harassed in the workplace, they must prove that their employer was negligent in their duty of care to provide a safe work environment for each of their employees.

For an employee, this means first alerting a supervisor or their human resources department that the harassment is occurring and then watching carefully to see how the employer responds. Typically, the employer will respond with some form of reprimand to the employee committing the alleged harassment, fire that employee, or move them to another department. These are all actions that indicate that the employer has taken the complaint seriously and is doing something to remedy the situation.

If you have reported harassment in the workplace, your employer should:

  • Take immediate action to protect you
  • Thoroughly investigate the complaint
  • Inform all parties of the results of their investigation
  • Take corrective action to remedy the situation

However, pending the results of the investigation, the employer may determine that, in order to shield itself from liability, it will side with the accused. In these cases, they may bury the results of the investigation to preserve their defense should a lawsuit emerge. This is illegal and if the unwanted behavior continues, then the employer can be sued for permitting a hostile work environment.

Discrimination versus Hostile Work Environments

While a hostile work environment can be the product of racism, homophobia, or other cultural biases, the concept is different from discrimination. Speaking generally, discrimination occurs within the confines of a professional work relationship while a hostile work environment does not.

As an example, refusing to hire someone who is gay, firing someone who is gay because they are gay, or failing to promote the most qualified employee because they are gay is discrimination because it pertains to conduct that is natural to the work environment.

Hostile work environments, on the other hand, constitute conduct, like sexual harassment or bullying, that is outside the normal scope of business relationships.

Contact a Los Angeles Hostile Work Environment Attorney Today

 If you have suffered through a hostile work environment at your place of employment, it is time to fight back and hold management accountable for their failure to provide a safe work environment. Call Jamie Wright, Esq. to learn more about how we can help.


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