What is a hostile work environment?

In California, the definition of a hostile work environment is offensive workplace conduct that is severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating work atmosphere. Unwelcome conduct can qualify as hostile work environment harassment when it poses a threat to the employee’s safety, affects their wellbeing or interferes with their job performance. Additionally, any reasonable person in the same circumstances would find the behavior abusive, offensive or distressing.

A key requirement for a hostile work environment claim is that the inappropriate behavior needs to be severe or pervasive. This means that isolated, occasional or trivial incidents may not meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment. For example, an employee making mildly rude jokes from time to time or asking a coworker out once may not be severe or pervasive enough to qualify. However, if the person makes a highly racist or sexist joke or keeps pursuing the coworker despite being turned down multiple times, then the behavior may be considered hostile work environment harassment.

For a hostile work environment to exist, the discrimination or harassment needs to target a protected trait under California law. This includes sex, age, race, color, ethnicity, pregnancy, sexual orientation, religion, national origin or disability. Even if a supervisor or coworker bullies or insults you, it may not run afoul of the law unless it is on the basis of one of these protected traits.

There is no black-and-white definition of how severe or pervasive the discriminatory or harassing behavior has to be to violate California employment laws. It is best to consult an employment attorney if you feel your workplace may be a hostile work environment. Also, it would be illegal for your employer to terminate your employment in retaliation for reporting any conduct you felt was discriminatory or harassing based on a protected class.

A knowledgeable San Francisco employment law attorney at McCormack Law Firm can evaluate your situation and determine whether what you are experiencing meets the legal standards of a hostile work environment. We can advise you of your rights and how to protect yourself.

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