Although everyone would like a workplace that supports and inspires employees, reality paints a different picture. Unfortunately, a rude boss or co-workers, stressful atmosphere, lack of perks, and few opportunities for promotion are among the more common aspects of a job. While treating colleagues and staff poorly drives good employees away and doesn’t make good business sense, it is not generally illegal. However, some companies and managers cross the line when it comes to creating or tolerating hostile work environments. A Minnesota hostile work environment is based on a form of discrimination and it is illegal.
What are the Requirements for a Hostile Work Environment?
Nearly 20% of workers feel their work environment is threatening or hostile. Isolated instances of hostility or intimidation create a toxic environment, but may not be against the law. A hostile work environment arises when hostile or abusive behavior is persistent and pervasive, affecting the ability of a person or group to perform their duties adequately.
An employer may focus on an employee, creating an uncomfortable or stressful work environment. The law considers whether the conduct would be offensive to a reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances before determining it is harassment. Behavior by managers or supervisors that is viewed as intimidating or harassing is given substantial weight as it is more likely to affect work performance and overall employment negatively. If you are singled out based on your protected class status with abusive or hostile treatment, there are legal avenues you can take.
What is a Hostile Work Environment Claim?
The legal requirements of a hostile work environment claim are often misunderstood. A hostile work environment claim is when a person is subjected to pervasive harassment or abuse based on a protected class, which include:
- Sex or sexual orientation
- Ethnic or National Origin
- Genetic information
Harassment can include offensive remarks about or actions toward members of a protected class. For example, telling offensive jokes about one or more protected classes of people or displaying sexually inappropriate or racist images. However, the law does not necessarily prohibit one-off comments, teasing, or outlying incidents. Generally, the situation must be ongoing. However, at times, just one egregious act may create a hostile work environment. This is particularly true in instances of sexual assault or harassment.
Sexual harassment can include requests for sexual favors, unwelcome sexual advances, and other physical touches or verbal comments of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is gender-neutral, meaning a woman or a man could be a harasser or a victim. Harassment can occur between people of the same sex and those of different genders. The harasser could be a co-worker, supervisor, client, or customer of the company. Examples of sexual harassment at work include:
- Using sexually suggestive language
- Making unwanted comments regarding physical qualities
- Using inappropriate gestures or slurs
- Discussing sex acts
- Unwanted touching
As many employees work remotely, it’s important to remember that sexual harassment in the workplace can take place virtually, by email, text message, or Zoom, or other video meetings.
Ultimately, for a hostile work environment claim, you must be able to demonstrate that your co-worker, supervisor, or other individual is singling you out and treating you differently based on your protected class status.
How Can I Prove a Hostile Work Environment?
To determine whether an environment is hostile, the court looks at more than individual incidents in the workplace. It considers the severity of the conduct and overall circumstances. Offensive and unwelcome behavior can involve implicit physical coercion, lewd behavior, physical touching, and extreme language. Some factors that are considered include:
- Frequency of the discriminatory behavior
- Whether it unreasonably interferes with a worker’s job performance
- The severity of the conduct
- Whether it is physically humiliating or threatening
The first step in establishing a claim is by documenting the mistreatment and demonstrating that it is due to sexual orientation, age, race, disability, gender, or other protected status. Evidence can include emails, comments, drawings, and events that illustrate that discrimination motivated the maltreatment. Testimony alone can count as evidence, without the backing of additional witnesses.
The next step is showing the steps you took, notifying management of the problem, and that no action was taken. If you believe a co-worker is sexually harassing you because they touch you frequently, despite the request to stop, or they make explicit racial comments whenever you enter a room, you must notify a manager or human resources. Not only is this important for a legal claim, but it’s also for your safety.
It is important to note that your employer may not be automatically liable for the behavior of employees. Employers become liable after you tell management about the hostile work environment and they do not take any or sufficient action to correct the situation.
Can a Hostile Work Environment Lead to Constructive Discharge?
The short answer is Yes. When a hostile work environment creates an intolerable work environment that no reasonable person would stay in, an employee may be forced to leave. Under these conditions, the law treats an employee as if he or she were fired. This is what is called a constructive discharge. For example, a manager states that they will make you so miserable, you’ll quit, and they proceed to take action that drives you out of the company.
Proving a constructive discharge is challenging. You need to demonstrate that there is an underlying, illegal issue and illustrate that a reasonable employee who wanted to stay would have felt forced to quit. Next, you must show that you notified management about the situation and gave them time to correct it, yet they did not. Working with experienced employment lawyers at Halunen Law can help you to prove your case.
What is the Value of a Hostile Work Environment Case?
Deciding to pursue a hostile work environment case based on harassment or discrimination is a big decision. It can be time-consuming and take a significant emotional toll. It is reasonable to consider the potential return before taking this step. Factors that affect the monetary value include:
- The egregiousness of the hostile work environment
- The amount of emotional distress you suffered
- The strength of the case on merits
- Your salary and other benefits
Types of damages available from a hostile work environment claim include attorney fees and costs, emotional distress, lost wages, medical bills, and potentially punitive damages.
Confronting your employer takes courage. It’s critical for you to have experienced, understanding legal representation when filing a harassment claim. At Halunen Law, our trial lawyers have decades of experience litigating Minnesota hostile work environment cases. We will investigate your case and help you determine how best to proceed. We don’t get paid unless we win.