Labor and Employment

The "Hostile Climate" of Today

By Susan M. Brazas, Attorney

Not long ago, a "traditional family" was recognizable and consisted of a husband and wife and 1.5 children. Statistically, most American households today don't fit this model. And what was once thought of as a "traditional" sexual harassment claim by a female employee being subjected to sexual advances by her male superior is no longer a typical scenario. The ACLU recently filed suit against a California high school for allowing sexually suggestive and insulting statements and threats to be made by male students toward a female student.

What is a "Hostile Climate"?

The term "hostile climate" or "hostile environment" is most often associated with the employment setting. More recently, however, social expectations have grown to include other locations such as schools, clubs and groups where someone "in charge" would be able to take corrective action to halt offensive conduct. One focus of the ACLU lawsuit was that the school failed to discipline male students who included sexually threatening statements and anti-gay slurs in an online video profile.

Laws in nearly all states, as well as federal civil rights laws, protect persons against discrimination. Not just discrimination based on sex, but also based on race, national origin and sexual orientation. Harassment, retaliatory discharge, hostile environment and "quid pro quo" are various forms of discrimination that can be alleged. "Quid pro quo" discrimination occurs when a person is offered something such as a job promotion on the condition that they agree to some discriminatory request such as a supervisor's demand for sex.

Strict Time Limits for Filing a Claim

Almost every state has its own Department of Human Rights or other division charged with the processing of discrimination complaints, including those alleging sexual harassment. Many people wrongly assume that the same period of time applies to file a charge with these entities as to file a lawsuit in court. It's essential to talk with an attorney about these strict time limits.

They're often as short as 180 days after the date of the most recent discriminatory act. That's only six months, which can pass by quickly when the victim has been caught up by alternating feelings of shame, guilt and uncertainty.

You can consult your state's Department of Human Rights Web site for general guidance about their process. However, an attorney can help assess key issues, such as which state is the appropriate location for filing a charge, and what event would be the "last act" triggering the start of the time limit.

Not Every Offensive Act Leads to a "Hostile Climate"

Many people encounter countless instances of offensive words and conduct in a typical day. The "get over it!" attitude prevalent in our "in-your-face" culture leads to many people saying what they want, when and where they want. But one, two or even several offensive remarks don't necessarily constitute a "hostile climate". As with many things in the legal realm, the question often turns on whether a "reasonable person" would find the climate hostile.

For example, in the ACLU case, it will be essential for them to prove that the offensive words or conduct:

  1. Were outrageous and discriminatory on legally recognized grounds, such as sex or race
  2. Were continuing and pervasive, as if the victim was bombarded with the assaults
  3. Were known, or should have been known, to the employer, school or other entity.

What Do I Do Now?

If the discriminating entity was your employer or supervisor, the first step in the process is to file a claim with your state's Department of Human Rights. Many states will simultaneously file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission upon your request. Once this administrative process has come to a close, only then will you have the right to sue in federal court.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can you talk to me about a hostile environment situation at work? There have been a few incidents, and I want to know if it's enough to support taking legal action.
  • Do co-workers have any liability in a hostile environment case, or is my only remedy against my employer?
  • Can you review my situation and help me figure out the time limits for seeking legal help? I know there are time limits, but I'm confused about figuring all of it out.
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