Federal anti-discrimination law (and most state anti-discrimination statutes) requires employers to prevent harassment of workers based on race, religion, sex, national origin and disability and to take steps to investigate and address claims of harassment when they arise.
“Hostile work environment” claims are a subset of claims brought by employees who allege they’re experiencing harassment severe and pervasive enough to create a workplace that a reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile or abusive.
Employers who allow such conditions in the workplace risk enforcement actions by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and/or relevant state agencies and can also face costly, embarrassing and time-consuming lawsuits by the victim.
It’s important to be aware that a hostile environment can arise in any number of forms.
That’s why it’s important to train supervisors to detect and address such situations and to have an attorney review your policies for reporting, investigating and responding to misbehavior.
It’s also important to be aware that a hostile environment can arise in any number of forms.
For example, a recent case from North Carolina recognized the possibility that a child who was often present in the workplace could create a hostile environment for workers.
In that case, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the repeated use of the “n-word” by the 6-year-old grandson of the white owners of an assisted living facility was enough for a Black employee’s hostile work environment claim to proceed to trial.
Though the worker alleged only three instances in which this happened, the 4th Circuit — in reversing the federal District Court’s dismissal of the case — said it didn’t matter that the child may have been too young to understand what he was saying.
That’s because a reasonable person in the worker’s position would consider the comments to be especially humiliating given the boy’s young age and because his constant presence at the facility posed a threat that another incident could occur at any time.
Meanwhile, a U.S. District Court judge in Michigan recently ruled that a bisexual worker’s claim of a hostile work environment could proceed against an employer that allegedly failed to investigate or address his complaints.
In that case, co-workers and a supervisor allegedly began directing anti-gay slurs toward the man on a daily basis after his first few months on the job, including referring to him as “Kevin Bacon,” the name of a gay Michigan man who was murdered and chopped up by his killer in 2019.
Though the employee allegedly reported the treatment to management, the company allegedly failed to investigate or take remedial action, even when he had to take medical leave for anxiety.
The court rejected the employer’s argument that it didn’t have adequate knowledge of the alleged harassment to take action.
On the other hand, a U.S. District Court judge in Virginia found that a supervisor’s “racially questionable” comments toward a Black employee were not sufficient to support a hostile work environment claim.
The worker in that case alleged that her manager repeatedly asked why Black girls “wore wigs,” described one employee’s wig as looking matted and dirty, and used the word “colored” to refer to African-Americans.
According to the judge, the comments — while potentially offensive and insensitive — did not rise to the level of severity necessary to “alter the terms and conditions” of the worker’s employment.
But another court may have allowed a jury to determine whether such remarks amounted to a hostile work environment.
So the best course of action is to have an employment attorney review your policies and procedures to ensure you’re taking the right steps to maintain a harassment-free workplace.