Hostile Work Environment

Do you feel as though the actions and remarks made by the people you work with or for are offensive and make your workplace experience uncomfortable? If so, you may be working in a hostile work environment.

Somewhat confusingly, not all hostile work environments are “hostile work environments” under the law. For example, some people might characterize their workplaces as “hostile” because they report to difficult bosses or work with challenging coworkers. While these kinds of issues certainly might make one’s workplace less than ideal, they may not necessarily meet the legal definition of “hostile work environment.”

Rather, a “hostile work environment” is a legal term of art describing a form of employment discrimination that manifests in unwelcomed discriminatory conduct based on (among other protected classes) one’s race, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. Put otherwise, a hostile work environment is a form of discriminatory harassment.

Examples of a hostile work environment include:

  • Offensive or insensitive jokes;
  • Insults, slurs, and name-calling;
  • Displaying racist, bigoted, homophobic, or sexually inappropriate pictures;
  • Touching, physical assaults, and threats;
  • Intimidation, ridicule, and mockery; and
  • Use of sexually suggestive language.

This type of behavior is prohibited under federal, New York State, and New York City law. However, the protections afforded under those laws differ, and conduct that violates one might not violate another. What follows is a general, broad overview of those laws. Given the legal nuances, if you believe that you are experiencing a hostile work environment, it is important to seek legal counsel as soon as possible in order to educate yourself about your rights and to get help regarding what actions to take and how best to manage the situation.

New York State and New York City Laws

Like the federal laws discussed above, the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”) and the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) broadly prohibit employment discrimination based on (among other protected classes) race, color, religion, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy status), age, and disability. However, there are significant differences between the two sets of laws.

First, the NYCHRL is applicable to all New York City employers City with 4 or more employees, and the NYSHRL is applicable to all New York employers regardless of how many persons they employ.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, the NYCHRL and the NYSHRL have done away with the “severe and pervasive” standard applicable under the federal laws. Rather, under the New York laws, hostile work environment claims are actionable if someone is subjected “to in inferior terms, conditions or privileges of employment” because their protected characteristic “regardless of whether [the] harassment would be considered severe or pervasive.”[3] Consequently, the NYCHRL and NYSHRL afford greater protections to people who have been subjected to discriminatory harassment in the workplace (and are therefore more plaintiff-friendly) than their federal law counterparts.

Struggling with a Hostile Work Environment? Call Bantle & Levy LLP.

If you are facing a hostile work environment, don’t hesitate to contact us at Bantle & Levy LLP. We can discuss your options with the patience, compassion, and expertise you deserve. Call us today.

[1] Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986).
[2] Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21-22 (1993) (“Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment-an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive-is beyond Title VII’s purview. Likewise, if the victim does not subjectively perceive the environment to be abusive, the conduct has not actually altered the conditions of the victim’s employment, and there is no Title VII violation.”)
[3] N.Y. Exec. L. § 296(1)(h).

Federal Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy status). The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), which apply to employers with 20 or more employees, prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of age and disability, respectively.

Under Title VII, the ADEA, and the ADA, discriminatory harassment based on membership in a protected class can give rise to a hostile work environment claim where it is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.”[1] This is sometimes referred to as the “severe or pervasive” standard.

What makes discriminatory harassment “severe or pervasive?” As the Supreme Court has explained, to meet that standard a plaintiff bringing suit on a hostile work environment theory under Title VII, the ADEA, or the ADA must demonstrate (1) that “a reasonable person would find” the challenged conduct “hostile or abusive” and (2) that he/she/they “subjectively perceive[d]” it to be hostile or abusive.[2]

Citing the “severe or pervasive” standard, courts have found that some offensive workplace behavior – such as teasing or offhand remarks – may not rise to the level of unlawful harassment.

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