Hostile Workplace: When Does Harassment Become Unlawful?

January 25, 2018 – Nearly one-fifth of workers say they face a threatening or hostile workplace, according to a recent study by the Harvard Medical School, the University of California and the Rand Corporation. While state and federal employment laws protect employees from several forms of workplace harassment, not all comments or behaviors that are unwelcomed meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment.


Currently, there is no federal or Minnesota state law that specifically protects employees from general “bullying” or a hostile workplace. Instead, employment protections reside under laws such as the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans with Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act and other laws that prohibit specific forms of discrimination and harassment (including sexual harassment) in the workplace. In other words, the harassment or hostility must be based on a protected class or status to rise to the level of unlawful.


What constitutes an unlawful hostile work environment?


An unlawful hostile work environment is a form of employment discrimination wherein the harassment or hostility is so pervasive or persistent that it adversely affects the ability of a person or group to perform their job. In determining what degree of hostility rises to the level of an actionable hostile workplace claim, the law asks whether a reasonable person, in the same or similar circumstances would find the conduct offensive. Rudeness, petty slights or isolated incidents generally are not sufficient to meet the hostile work environment legal standard. Importantly, hostile or harassing conduct by supervisors and managers is viewed as more serious because it is more likely to adversely affect employment.


There are several types of hostile work environment claims. Most employees have heard about sexual harassment in the workplace. This occurs when employees are subjected to sexually inappropriate conduct or comments that rise to the level of hostile work environment. A hostile work environment may also be based on a person or group’s protected status, such as gender, disability, race, national origin, sexual orientation, age, religion or marital status.


Examples of offensive conduct that may rise to the level of unlawful harassment include, but are not limited to:


  • Racial or sexual slurs, offensive jokes or epithets;
  • Derogatory comments about mental illness, depression, anxiety disorders or mental retardation;
  • Threats of job termination or other adverse action if sexual favors are not returned;
  • Repeated comments about getting too old, slowing down and retirement;
  • Physical assault or threat.

I work in a hostile workplace. What should I do?


An employee experiencing harassment should inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcomed and must stop. In addition, the employee should report the hostile or harassing conduct to management and/or human resources. An employee handbook may provide guidance on making the report. Further, the employee should document the incident in case they are asked about it in the future. Contact an experienced employment law attorney to discuss whether the hostile or harassing conduct may be unlawful.


What if my employer retaliates?


The Minnesota Human Rights Act, Title VII and other federal anti-discrimination laws prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee who reports or opposes an unlawful discriminatory practice. For example, an employer may not take adverse action against an employee for reporting hostility or harassment based on gender. Retaliation includes any form of intimidation, harassment or reprisal. Retaliation by an employer includes, but is not limited to:


  • Departure from any customary employment practice;
  • Transfer or reassignment to a lesser position;
  • Negative or lowered performance evaluations;
  • Abusive verbal or physical behavior;
  • Threats or increased scrutiny of work or attendance;
  • Termination.

Contact Our Minnesota Employment Lawyers

Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta LLP is committed to protecting the rights of Minnesota employees who have suffered unlawful workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation. If you believe you work in a hostile work environment or have been retaliated against for reporting workplace harassment, contact one of our employment law attorneys at 612-252-3570 or click here for a free initial consultation.


 


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