The law doesn't try to fix all of the struggles that happen in the workplace, but a hostile work environment is one that the law protects against. However, a hostile work environment isn't just one that's hard to work in. The law defines it much more narrowly.

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What's a Hostile Work Environment?

The general legal definition for a hostile work environment is one that is so hostile that the worker fears going to work. Federal code and case law describes the atmosphere as being "offensive, intimidating, or oppressive." Oftentimes, it develops because the employer wants the employee to do something and the employee refuses to do it because of his legal rights.

What Are Some Examples of a Hostile Work Environment?

For instance, if an employee reports some illegal behavior of his or her employer, the employer likely knows that he cannot fire the employee. Instead, the employer may attempt to make the workplace and working experience so miserable that the employee quits.

The employer, however, isn't the only one who can create a hostile work environment. Another common scenario that shows up repeatedly in case law involves union representatives who want to get new employees to sign on as union members. If that new employee refuses to sign up, the representative or other members start intimidating or otherwise harassing that employee to get him to sign up.

Currently, federal case law includes a number of situations where a hostile work environment can develop. The most important limitation on the definition comes from Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. Here the Supreme Court stated that mere teasing and off-handed jokes are not enough on their own to create such an environment. It has to be much more aggressive-- such that a reasonable person would be afraid to go to work, making quitting practically the only choice.

If you need help dealing with or preventing a hostile work environment, a lawyer can give you the advice and guidance you need.

Get started Ask an Employment Lawyer a Question You'll hear back in one business day.

Get started Ask an Employment Lawyer a Question You'll hear back in one business day.