Hostile Work Environment Issues & Laws

••• Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

When a person in a work environment harasses another person who is a part of a protected class, that person violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The laws against hostile work environments restrict many different types of speech. To determine whether your employees work in a hostile environment, you must understand what constitutes a protected class of people. Then you need to know how to identify the type of speech the laws restrict.

Protected Classes

The United States government enacted anti-discrimination laws to protect certain classes of people. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the following groups qualify as protected classes: a person on the receiving end of verbal harassment on the basis of his race, age, color, sex, natural origin, disability, sexual orientation or retaliation.

Capability of Creating Hostile Workplace

Any person has the capability of creating a hostile work environment for another person,either through verbal harrassment, physical threats or some other means. We often think of owners or managers creating hostile environments by bullying employees under their supervision. But the laws against harassment in the workplace extend to other employees, as well as vendors, contractors and even customers who patronize your business. For example, if you own a restaurant, and male customers harass your female servers on the basis of their gender, your workplace could qualify as a hostile environment. Any person affected by the speech can allege a claim under the Civil Rights Act, not just the person to whom the speech was directed.

Types of Restricted Speech

The type of speech that creates a hostile work environment varies from sexual speech to political statements. Religious speech can serve to create a hostile work environment as well. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that a company that permitted religious broadcasts over the public address system for a year created a hostile work environment based on religious discrimination.

In a sexual harassment case, an administrative law judge found that emails forwarded by a coworker created a hostile work environment. In this case, a supervisor encouraged the jokes to be forwarded. The administrative law judge found these jokes to be degrading, shameful, humiliating and defamatory toward men and women on the basis of gender, sexual preference, skin color and national and ethnic origin.

Avoiding the Hostile Environment

To avoid creating a hostile work environment for your employees, be mindful of all protected classes. Discourage remarks about another person's clothing, looks and body parts. Curtail offensive touching among and between employees, and between employees and the people patronizing your business. Let employees know they will be disciplined, or even terminated, if they send or post sexually suggestive or racially insensitive emails, letters, notes or images at work. Instruct your employees how to behave and speak appropriately. You should also consult an employment attorney if you have any concerns.


About the Author

August Jackson is a contributor to various websites. She has taken courses in copywriting and has worked in corporate America as a proofreader. Jackson holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Juris Doctor with an emphasis in bankruptcy law.

Photo Credits

  • Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images