I get a lot of calls from employees who reach out for legal help because they are or have been working in what they call a “hostile work environment.” Many of them have not been fired, and are still working in the environment. Others have quit because the environment had become too toxic. For all of them, work had become a very unpleasant or even miserable place. They reached the point where they dread (or dreaded) having to go.
Sometimes the employee’s dread comes from knowing they will likely experience unwanted sexual remarks or behavior or touching. Sometimes it comes from knowing they will likely be threatened, insulted, humiliated, or demeaned by a boss, or by one or more co-workers. Sometimes it comes from knowing they will be unfairly criticized or scrutinized, or blamed for things that are not their fault.
My heart always goes out to these clients. We spend so much of our time at work, and our jobs are a big part of who we are and how we feel about ourselves. If we are unhappy at work it is almost certain we will be unhappy in our lives.
Often, though, for a variety of reasons, people can’t just quit their jobs in these circumstances, even if their jobs have become a source of misery. They are caught in a terrible situation, and it can seem like there’s no way out. So many of them will reach out to a lawyer, hoping he or she can do something to fix this deeply unjust situation. Can’t a lawyer do something about their “hostile work environment”?
The answer to that – like a lot of questions in the law – is “it depends.” The term “hostile work environment” is used a lot. There are lots of news stories about people who filed or won legal cases because of a “hostile work environment”. But there is a lot of confusion about what that term actually means.
It surprises many people to learn that the law does not always protect people from a “hostile” work environment. It depends on what the motivation is behind the “hostility.” If an employee is being mistreated or harassed for reasons having something to with their sex or race – or certain other characteristics like their religion or national origin – then there are indeed legal protections against it.
But if the source of the hostility is something else there may not be a legal remedy for it. If, for instance, someone is being harassed at work just because their manager or co-worker is a jerk, or because the manager or co-worker is simply an unreasonable, excessively demanding, or irrational person, or because of a “personality conflict” with them, often there is not a legal solution to the problem, Many times the only things the victim of this kind of harassment can do is either try to resolve the problem through internal channels – like going to HR – or to find another job. This can be very hard for people to understand when they have worked hard, and have done nothing to deserve the harassment and mistreatment they are being subjected to.
The problem of a hostile work environment, as you can see, can be a complex and tricky one for the employee. Having good and experienced legal counsel can be invaluable in resolving the situation in the best way possible.