Not Everything Unpleasant at Work Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment

A hostile workplace is not really about your boss or coworkers being rude, annoying or mean. In order to be illegal, the harassing conduct must be based on one of the recognized protected characteristics, including race, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. So, how do you determine whether you have been a victim of illegal workplace harassment?

What Type of Harassment Is Actionable?

In order for there to be a case for workplace harassment, the actions in question must be "pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive;" however, "petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality." This means that even if your boss or your coworkers behave like jerks, if that behavior is not based on your race, religion, sex, or other protected characteristic, it will not be considered illegal.

How to Support Your Claim

The first thing you must show is that the harassing conduct was subjectively considered abusive to you as the affected employee. Second, you must demonstrate that the harassing conduct is objectively severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive. Third, you are required to show that the mistreatment you have been subjected to makes itimpossible to do your job. In other words, the behavior must have "altered the terms, conditions, or privileges" of your employment or work environment. Finally, the behavior must be discriminatory.

How Do Courts Determine Severe or Pervasive?

The first thing to remember is that this determination is made on a case-by-case basis, because every situation is different. The following factors are considered, though none of them alone are dispositive, and not all of them are required:

  • The severity of the conduct;
  • The frequency of the unwelcome discriminatory conduct;
  • Whether the conduct was physically threatening, humiliating, or merely offensive;
  • Whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with work performance;
  • The conduct's effect on the employee's psychological well-being; and
  • Whether the harasser was a superior within the organization.

Employers May Have a Defense to a Hostile Work Environment Claim

Possibly the most important fact you must to prove is that your employer was aware of the harassment, or at least should have known about it, but did nothing to stop the harassment or prevent it from recurring. If this aspect of your claim is not established, the employer may escape liability. Likewise, if an employer can show that they exercised reasonable care to prevent the harassment, and that the alleged victim did not follow the company's policies regarding harassment prevention, they may be able to escape liability. This defense may be available even if there is no dispute that the harassment actually occurred.


Employers should be held responsible for facilitating or ignoring a hostile work environment. If you have been the victim of such workplace harassment or discrimination, Wrady & Michel, LLC is prepared to answer your questions and advise you concerning your legal options. To learn more, get in touch with our employment lawyers in Birmingham by filling out a case evaluation form or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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