While it is obviously your responsibility to investigate, correct any problems, and re-establish a safe, supportive, productive team atmosphere, a true “hostile work environment” is a serious problem with a very specific definition that all employers need to know.
What Is A Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment exists when an employee experiences workplace harassment and/or fears going to work because of the offensive, intimidating, or oppressive atmosphere generated by the harasser – usually a boss or co-worker. It may also be created when management acts in a manner designed to make an employee quit their job rather than endure their situation.
In order for a workplace to be considered hostile, certain legal criteria must be met:
- A hostile work environment is created by a boss or coworker whose actions, communication, or behavior sufficiently change an employee’s reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment.
- Additionally, the behavior, actions or communication must be discriminatory in nature. Discrimination is monitored and enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Finally, the hostile behavior must be severe and pervasive – i.e. it continues over time and is not investigated or addressed by the employer in such a manner as to stop the complained-of behavior.
Therefore, an employee who constantly talks loudly or plays their radio right next to a coworker’s cubicle is displaying rude and obnoxious behavior, but is not creating a hostile work environment (unless the comments or songs also contain discriminatory elements).
On the other hand, a co-worker or supervisor who continually tells sexually explicit stories or makes jokes based on racial stereotypes and refuses to stop when asked is guilty of creating a hostile work environment.
What Behavior Qualifies?
Hostile work environments include situations in which employers and supervisors fail to address the following:
- A co-worker who verbally harasses or berates the victim using epithets, jokes, drawings, cartoons, or other demeaning communications concerning the victim’s age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or race, and refuses to discontinue the behavior after being asked to stop.
- A supervisor who fires or denies promotion to a subordinate for refusing to be sexually cooperative, or who offers preferential treatment to a subordinate if they sexually cooperate.
- A co-worker who singles out a victim based on some personal characteristic such as race, age, sexual orientation, or gender; and sabotages the victim’s work or reputation, engages in hostile physical conduct, or otherwise demeans the person in a severe and pervasive manner.
Addressing a Hostile Work Environment as an Employer
If an employee makes a complaint of a hostile work environment, or if you believe that there is currently a hostile work environment within your practice, there are certain steps you must take right away as an employer.
First, you should already have a clear policy in place that effectively addresses how employees should report concerns and make complaints. This reporting policy should be explained in your employee handbook and should already have been acknowledged by your employees. If your handbook doesn’t include this, or if you wrote or borrowed it from another office, please call CEDR at (866) 414-6056 for some help!
Your Employee Concern Reporting policy should require the complaining employee to immediately report the complained-of behavior to a supervisor or the doctor. Additionally, in case the offender is a supervisor, doctor, or owner, there must be an independent channel of communication so that the employee can effectively report a claim to a member of management without fear of retaliation. (Retaliation is illegal!)
Assuming you do have this policy in place, your responsibility when made aware of a potential hostile work environment is to immediately conduct an investigation, form an understanding of the situation, and determine whether it meets the criteria listed above. If it does indeed qualify as a hostile work environment, you must then discipline and/or terminate the offending individual as warranted by the facts of the case.
Protecting Your Practice from Employee Claims and Lawsuits
Keep in mind, your policy requiring employees to report concerns so they can be investigated and resolved appropriately is essential to protecting your practice, since it shifts some of the burden onto the employee. You can only investigate and resolve a problem if you are aware that it exists!
Having the right policies and consistently applying them becomes even more important if you must ever counter a claim or lawsuit that includes a hostile work environment allegation.
Such claims (especially if they are frivolous or flimsy) can often be derailed by showing that the employee in question never followed your policy and reported the behavior, thereby never providing you an opportunity to investigate the complaint, discipline any offender, and resolve the issue.
Finally, protecting your practice also means protecting your team and the work environment. Team members must be able to see, both in policy and by your actions, that you take employee concerns seriously and are committed to investigating and resolving any serious issue that may come up.
Have a question about this topic, or an ongoing situation in your practice? ESS members may call the CEDR HR Solution Center advisors anytime at 866-414-6056, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll help you resolve one issue for free!
Friendly Disclaimer: Tips presented here are general in nature, and are not intended to replace good counsel about a specific issue with either your attorney or your favorite HR expert.