The term “hostile work environment“ is thrown around a lot these days. It is not just a phrase used by employment lawyers and judges. It has become a part of the lexicon of the general public. In the same context, one often hears references to a “toxic work environment,“ or to “bullying“ in the workplace.
A lot of folks are under the assumption – not an unreasonable one – that it is illegal for employers to create a “hostile work environment“ for one or more employees, or to allow such an environment to exist in the workplace, or to not eliminate such an environment once an employee complains about it.
It surprises a lot of people to find out that a hostile or toxic work environment is not always illegal, or something with which the law concerns itself. In fact, a work environment can be very “hostile“ or “toxic“ without being against the law. Furthermore, whether or not a hostile work environment is illegal does not depend on exactly how hostile the work environment is. It is not that “mildly“ hostile environments are not illegal, but “severely“ hostile environments are.
As far as the law is concerned, the determination of whether or not a hostile or toxic work environment is illegal depends upon the motivation for the hostility or toxicity. If the employer or supervisor creating the unpleasant environment is motivated by factors like an employee’s race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, or disability, it may very well be unlawful, and grounds for a lawsuit.
If, however, the hostility comes from another source – such as a personality conflict or personal disagreement – the resulting work environment, no matter how toxic or unfair it may be, it’s not legally significant.
This can seem very unfair, but the law sometimes tells an employee who is being subjected to a hostile or toxic work environment, “Hey, you don’t have to keep working there. You can always go find another job.“
A smart employer, of course, is always going to want to create a good working environment for its employees, for a wide variety of reasons. So regardless of the legalities, addressing issues of hostility or toxicity in the workplace is always a good idea.
If you are an employer or employee confronted with issues relating to a hostile or toxic work environment, it would be wise to get advice from a qualified employment lawyer.