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What constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?

What is the meaning of a Hostile Work Environment?

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A work environment is considered hostile when the employee is bothered by the employer’s or co-worker habitual actions that makes it hard for the employee to work properly. This term is based on the federal laws in the U.S. in some regions; they have a different term for hostile work environment. In the European Union, they call it “workplace violence and harassment”, in Australia they r3efer to it as workplace harassment or “workplace bullying”. There are certain things that have to be established first before an incident or situation can be called a legal claim. Laws vary in different states and regions, nonetheless, all employees and employers must respond to a harassment claim.

Types of Harassment

There are several and different kinds of actions and situations that can make a working environment uncomfortable but there are particular actions or incidents that leads or pertains to harassment in the workplace.

The following may be considered as a form of harassment:
• Sexually suggestive comments
• Sexual emails
• Leering
• Remarks about a person’s:
1. Age
2. Gender
3. Race
4. Personal beliefs
5. Physical disabilities
6. Mental disabilities
7. Physical threats
8. Sexual contacts

Legal vs. Illegal

However strange it may sound, there are kinds of harassment that are considered legal. Under the laws of U.S. harassment becomes illegal when the victim belongs in a “protected class”. This classification is based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 though it differs from state to state.

Below are the statuses that comprised the protected classes:
• Race
• Gender
• Sexual orientation
• Pregnancy
• Military status
• Disabilities
• Political affiliation
• Having HIV or AIDS

At-Will Employment

“At will employment” is a legal concept in the U.S that states that unless a person’s length of employment is clearly stated in the contract, the employer has every right to terminate the employment of the employee for as long as the reason has nothing to do with the protected class status. On the contrary, the employee can quit the job anytime for whatever reason. If the person gets fired, he cannot make a claim of a hostile working environment unless the reason behind it is linked with the protected class status.

Time Factor

Whether the action is connected to the protected class or not for as long as the action is done habitually and the employee cannot work properly at work, he or she may make a claim of a hostile working environment. It will be up to the court to establish the claim and usually the time factor is considered significantly. For instance, if the first incident happened once, second it also depends on how long it took the person to report the incident usually not more than a year in most regions.

Employee Response

It is always best to try to resolve any issue in a diplomatic way and this is not an exemption. What the employee can do is inform the person in a calm and professional way that his or her actions are inappropriate in the work setting. Inform the person that if it continues the supervisors and authorities will be formally informed of the incident. The people the employee can turn to for help are the manager, or Human Resources officer (HR) or the EEO or Equal Employment Opportunity officer. In the U.S., this person is assigned to take care of this kind of claim by the employee being harassed. The person can also seek the help of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC through letter, phone or email. Remember to check if the business is covered by the EEOC.

The supervisor or the HR officer will try to resolve the problem. Sometimes the employee prefers to go straight to the EEOC, in this case the EEOC will suggest mediation services to both parties and if it is not resolve or the employee refuses, he or she can hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit.

Employer Response

Laws may vary in different regions but generally all businesses are required to be prepared and have procedures ready in case of claims like this is made by an employee. An employer will benefit in the case of an employee who is not aware of the programs and therefore does not use them. this way the employer may avoid legal liability by making use of the Faragher-Ellerth Defense. The employer must be prepared in the sense that all records of the employers are complete and ready anytime a complaint is filed by any employee at the EEOC.

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