Where’s the Line? What is a “Hostile Work Environment”?

Whether you are taking policy steps at your business to protect against harassment in the workplace or you are facing an employee discrimination claim that alleges a hostile work environment, it can be difficult to know what actually constitutes a hostile work environment. While you might know that a hostile work environment is one in which an employee faces harassment or discrimination, you might also be wondering: Where is the line? In other words, when does certain language or behavior rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment in Texas?

Understanding the Hostile Work Environment & Harassment in Workplaces

The term “hostile work environment” pertains to harassment in the workplace that violates an existing law designed to protect employees against discrimination. Unlawful harassment can occur under both state and federal law in Texas. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) expressly defines harassment as a “form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”

Harassment occurs in one of two forms: quid pro quo harassment, or harassment that rises to the level of creating a hostile work environment.

Defining a Hostile Work Environment

When does harassment create a hostile work environment? First, the harassing conduct must be based on another person’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Then, for the harassment to rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment, the EEOC clarifies that it must be severe or pervasive enough “to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”

It is important to know that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents,” unless those isolated incidents are “extremely serious” are not enough. Rather, a reasonable person would need to find the behavior to be intimidating or offensive enough to create a hostile work environment.

Key Things to Know in Determining Whether Harassment Rises to the Level of a Hostile Work Environment

There are some central pieces of information to keep in mind when determining whether harassment rises to the level of a hostile work environment:

  • A single incident probably is not enough unless that event is extremely serious;
  • Offensive conduct that can create a hostile work environment can take many different forms, such as slurs or name calling, offensive jokes, assaults, threats, put-downs, interfering with a person’s ability to do their job, or even displaying offensive images or objects;
  • The harasser may work in the same place as the employee alleging harassment but does not need to—harassers can include bosses or supervisors, coworkers, or even non-employees such as clients, customers, or delivery persons; and
  • An employee may be able to file a hostile work environment claim even if they are not the target of the offensive conduct, since a hostile work environment can affect more people that was the target of the offensive conduct.

Contact Our Texas Employment Law Attorneys

If you have questions about creating workplace policies to prevent harassment, or if you need assistance dealing with a hostile work environment claim filed by an employee, our Dallas employment lawyers can assist you. Contact Simons Paschal PLLC today to learn more about how we serve employers in Texas.

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