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Missouri Verdict Provides Case Study of ‘Hostile Work Environment’


Workplace harassment, whether gender-based, race-based or based on any other protected category, falls under the general umbrella of discrimination.

One way for an employee to make out a successful claim is by proving the employer maintained a “hostile work environment” — meaning one in which the employee was subjected to insults, verbal abuse, slurs, intimidation and inappropriate remarks based on their sex, race, religion, disability or other “protected class.”

In order to win, the employee has to show the employer knew or should have known of the conduct and failed adequately to address it. The employee also has to establish that the misconduct was severe, pervasive and offensive enough to potentially cause mental/emotional distress.

The consequences for an employer that maintains or tolerates such an environment can be severe. For example, a St. Louis jury recently awarded nearly $2 million to a pair of female salespeople who endured several years of pervasive harassment at a local car dealership.

The jury found that their sales manager constantly yelled and screamed at them, physically intimidated them, constantly referred to women as “bitches,” and sabotaged their sales opportunities while treating male employees much more favorably.

The sales manager also intimidated the saleswomen by bringing a gun into the workplace in violation of company policy because he was concerned about protestors following the police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. (Relatedly, they claimed he treated Black customers differently than white ones by giving them less favorable financing deals and screening their legal and socioeconomic profiles on social media.)

The two plaintiffs complained repeatedly to management to no avail, until they filed a written complaint, after which an investigation concluded that there was no problem. Ultimately, both employees quit rather than endure further harassment.

At trial, the dealership claimed the employees fabricated their claims and colluded in their written complaint. But other former employees corroborated their claims at trial, as did the notes of the lawyer who conducted the investigation.

This may seem like an extreme scenario, and it may in fact be. But the underlying facts do not necessarily need to rise to this level to constitute a hostile work environment.

If you’re concerned about your own company’s work environment, it would be a good idea to have an employment attorney audit your employment practices, including your procedures for reporting, investigating and responding to allegations of harassment.