Labor and Employment

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

By Sachi Barreiro, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

The same laws that prohibit discrimination also prohibit harassment in the workplace. Harassment is unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic—such as race, religion, or gender—that the employee must endure in order to keep his or her job or that creates a hostile work environment.

To bring a hostile work environment claim, you must show that:

  • the unwelcome conduct was based on a protected characteristic
  • the conduct was severe or pervasive, and
  • a reasonable person would have found the work environment hostile, intimidating, or offensive.

Unwelcome conduct includes a variety of comments or actions, such as telling discriminatory jokes, using epithets or slurs, posting offensive pictures or cartoons, or insulting, mocking, touching, hitting, groping, intimidating, or threatening others.

Depending on the severity, a single incident could qualify as harassment (for example, sexual assault or other physical violence). However, more often, harassment is made up of several smaller incidents that add up over time. To learn more, see our article on what qualifies as illegal harassment.

Employees who are being harassed at work should make a complaint to a supervisor or someone in the HR department. In some cases, an employer can successfully defend against a discrimination or harassment claim if the employee never reported the behavior to the company.

Example: Jasmine’s male coworker, Armand, regularly makes comments on Jasmine’s appearance, calling her “hot” and telling her to show off her legs more. He asks Jasmine out on dates, even though she has made it clear that she has a boyfriend and is not interested. Armand tells sexual jokes, describes his sexual encounters in detail, and asks Jasmine about her sex life with her boyfriend. He also makes sexist comments about women, saying that they they’re too indecisive and emotional to hold management positions. Jasmine and several of her female coworkers have expressed their discomfort to HR, but nothing has been done to stop Armand’s behavior. Their employer is likely subject to a hostile work environment suit.

Go to the main employment discrimination FAQ for employees page.

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