California Hostile Work Environment Attorneys

All About Hostile Work Environments

According to a 2015 survey about working conditions in the United States, about one out of five employees experience harassment, verbal abuse, or violence at work. Dealing with this behavior has emotional and physical consequences for victims—headaches, migraines, sleep deprivation, chest pains, and nausea, just to name a few. Harassment in the workplace can also lead to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

If you think that you might suffer from a hostile work environment, contact an attorney skilled in dealing with different types of workplace harassment. Even if you don’t file a lawsuit immediately, an experienced harassment lawyer will guide you through your next steps, and most importantly, help you protect your rights as you move forward.

Let’s take a closer look at what constitutes a hostile work environment, laws about hostile work environments, and actionable steps that you can take if you are subjected to a hostile work environment.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

Under California law, a hostile work environment is a type of workplace harassment that encompasses a wide variety of behaviors committed by anyone that an employee interacts with. This behavior creates a hostile, offensive, and/or intimidating atmosphere. Behaviors that may contribute to a hostile work environment include:

  • Discussing sexual acts
  • Telling racist, sexist, or bigoted jokes
  • Unnecessary touching
  • Commenting on physical attributes
  • Displaying inappropriate, sexually suggestive, or racially insensitive photos
  • Using demeaning or inappropriate language or tones of voice
  • Using lewd gestures
  • Using crude language
  • Sabotaging the victim’s work
  • Violence, threats, or intimidation

These behaviors may not constitute a hostile work environment on their own. Sometimes behavior is mild or isolated. It may even be unintentional, and when brought to one’s attention, quickly rectified.

Bad behavior like this isn’t just unprofessional; it may also violate the law. Sexual harassment may become actionable when:

  • The harassing behavior is unwelcome. (If you invite the behavior, it cannot constitute harassment.)
  • The behavior is based on the victim’s protected status—for example, sex, race, age, etc. This requirement is critical and often misunderstood. Someone can act mean or inappropriate to you at work, and not violate the law, unless they treat you that way because of your gender, age, nationality, or one of the other protected classes.
  • The behavior abuses the person affected. For example, Sally overhears some lewd comments that Bob makes to Susie. Sally thinks these comments are abusive, but Susie finds them funny and isn’t offended. The victim does not have to be the person harassed, so if Sally is affected by Bob’s comments, they may qualify as harassing behavior.
  • A reasonable person finds the behavior objectively severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.

Laws About Hostile Work Environments

Each state has slightly different procedures and statutes, but laws about a hostile work environment in California fall under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Under California law, offensive conduct may be based upon an employee’s actual or perceived sex or gender-identity, actual or perceived sexual orientation, and/or pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. This definition includes many forms of offensive behavior such as gender-based harassment of a person of the same sex as the harasser, and actions that subject co-workers to a hostile work environment.

What Should I Do if I Am Subjected to a Hostile Work Environment?

If you feel that you are working in a hostile work environment, proceed with caution to make sure you gather the information needed for any necessary legal action. Here are some basic guidelines. Discuss them with your attorney before implementing any of them:

  1. In a professional manner, tell your harasser that you are uncomfortable with the behavior and ask that he or she stop—if this is even possible. You shouldn’t have to confront a harasser if you fear further harassment, retaliation or intimidation.
  2. If the harassment continues, document everything, including times, dates, and behavior. Print and save copies of harassing emails and text messages.
  3. Discreetly talk to coworkers. Your goal is to find out if anyone else is experiencing the same type of harassment as you, and to urge them to speak out with you. But do not do this before consulting with an attorney. There are situations where talking to coworkers is not a good idea—and documenting “everything” could prove problematic and make it appear like you are trying to build a case.
  4. You may consider recording conversations, but the legality and admissibility of this information depend on which state you live in. Some states require that all parties consent to recordings, while other states require only one-party consent. Never record a conversation without first discussing the possibility with an experienced lawyer, who can advise you about what laws and circumstances may apply to your individual situation. In California, it is very clear that recording conversations is illegal unless the other person knows you are recording or if there is no reasonable expectation of privacy when the recording is made. Each illegal recording may result in a fine of $5,000 or even more if the victim of the illegal recording can prove damages.
  5. Learn about your employer’s internal system for dealing with complaints, and file a complaint with your employer in writing.
  6. If the harassment does not stop, keep notifying your employer. Continue to document all details surrounding the behavior that is contributing to a hostile work environment.

How Do I File a Hostile Work Environment Claim?

Even after you’ve followed your company’s protocol to file a hostile work environment complaint, inappropriate conduct may continue. This means you may need to consider a lawsuit. If you haven’t already contacted an experienced attorney who specializes in sexual harassment in the workplace, wrongful termination, and employment discrimination, act quickly. An attorney can review your documentation, discuss the merits of your case with you, and most importantly, help devise a plan for moving forward.