Workplace culture and dynamics are not always as positive as employers and employees would hope. In some cases, a workplace becomes so negative and harmful for an employee that it constitutes a hostile work environment.
Under such circumstances, it is crucial for employers to respond appropriately to prevent legal battles.
What is a hostile work environment?
Broadly, a hostile work environment is a type of discrimination. Employers and employees can both be responsible for a hostile work environment. Typically, conduct and/or speech deemed to be hostile is intimidating, offensive, abusive but more than mere rudeness or off-color jokes. Furthermore, to be a hostile work environment in the legal sense, the behavior must be intentional, and it must be directed toward someone because of their membership in a protected class (i.e., race, age disability, religion, gender, etc.). Finally, the hostile behavior has to be so pervasive and severe that it affects the ability of the employee to do his/her/their job.
It is against both state and federal laws to permit or nurture this type of work environment.
Why an employer must respond
If an employee makes a complaint about a hostile work environment, it is crucial to take the complaint seriously. If an employer fails to act, it could lead to a discrimination, harassment, or other legal claim by the employee.
There may also be less obvious consequences. For instance, an employer may see an increase in their unemployment tax rates, as this story points out. This can happen if an employer knew about or should have known about the hostile work environment and an employee quits because of it. If the quit is deemd a “constructive discharge,” meaning they had no choice but to quit, that could make the employee eligible for unemployment benefits.
How to respond
In responding to claims of a hostile work environment, employers should be deliberate and professional. Retain documentation; investigate the claim in earnest; take the situation seriously.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to prevent, identify or resolve situations creating a hostile work environment. If questions or concerns arise regarding this or other types of employment disputes, it can be wise to consult an attorney for specific direction and legal guidance.