Pennsylvania Labor Laws on a Hostile Work Environment

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Both federal and Pennsylvania state laws protect workers against a hostile work environment. But the term "hostile" has a particular meaning in the law, and the laws do not apply to every type of hostility. They are laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace for those in certain protected categories, like sex and race.

In order to understand a worker's rights in Pennsylvania, it's important to get an overview of who is protected, what behaviors the law protects against, and the requisite steps to take to get help.

Federal Laws Prohibiting Workplace Discrimination

No laws guarantee an employee enjoyable work nor a happy workplace to which they are delighted to go each day. This ideal is not a standard that can be enforced. However, both federal and state laws protect against unlawful discrimination in the workplace, of which a hostile work environment may be a part.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the landmark law that first prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

The definition of “sex” under Title VII was later determined by the courts to include sexual orientation and gender identity and, over time, other laws were passed to expand the list of protected categories.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act

In 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed to extend protection against workplace discrimination to people 40 years old and older based on their age. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act extended these protections to people with disabilities.

These anti-discrimination laws are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Hostile Work Environment Under Federal Laws

EEOC regulations define a hostile work environment as unwelcome conduct that is based on one of these protected categories.

In effect, a hostile work environment is simply a form of harassment that becomes unlawful when a person suffers consistent, unwanted, and objectively offensive conduct at work as a result of their membership in one of these protected classes.

According to the EEOC, this includes harassment where an employee must accept the offensive conduct as a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.

Employer Liability for Harassment

The harassment can be from the employer themselves, but it can also be from a supervisor or even another employee. The employer can be held responsible if they were made aware of the conduct and failed to stop it.

The employee can bring a civil lawsuit for harassment, discrimination or creating a hostile work environment, and receive money damages if they establish that:

  • Employee was a member of a protected class.
  • Employee was subjected to harassment in the form of unwelcome verbal or physical conduct involving that protected class.

  • Hostile acts were based on the employee's protected class, like age, sex, religion, race and disability.

  • Hostile acts were severe enough to disrupt the employee’s work or productivity.
  • Hostile acts were not limited to one or two occasions, but occurred regularly or frequently over a period of time.
  • Acts were either done by the employer or the employer was advised of the situation but failed to take appropriate action to stop the behavior.
  • Employee had reason to believe they were required to tolerate the abusive behavior in order to keep their job.

Application of Federal Laws for Employee Rights

Federal anti-discrimination laws protect employees from a hostile work environment only if the offensive conduct is based on their membership in a protected class. But the laws apply to employees in all 50 states and to all employers who fit the definition in the statute.

However, federal laws do not preempt the harassment area. States can also enact laws preventing discrimination in the workplace, and many do. Pennsylvania is one state that has done so by enacting the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Pennsylvania Laws Prohibiting Workplace Discrimination

When it comes to workplace discrimination in Pennsylvania, the federal laws discussed above may cover the situation. However, an employee could also consider bringing an employment discrimination lawsuit under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) 43 P.S. Sections 951-963, a statute that deals with employment discrimination.

In fact, this statute was passed in 1955, so it predates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Prohibition Against Hostile Work Environments

Pennsylvania takes hostile work environments and other worker discrimination very seriously and prohibits them as an exercise of the police power of the state. That's because the state recognizes that discrimination has clear negative consequences for both workers and, in a larger frame, the Commonwealth.

Effects of Discrimination

Discrimination results in individuals not being utilized to their fullest potential; deprives them of the ability to maintain decent standards of living; and sends them to tap public relief, causing injury to the public health and welfare.

Scope of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act

The PHRA goes beyond the federal discrimination law's definition of protected categories, which lists race, color, religious creed, ancestry, sex and disability. It enlarges these protections to include familial status, ancestry and age, and includes the use of a guide or support animal due to a health condition in the category of handicap.

Scope of Worker Protections Under the PHRA

The PHRA specifically expands protection to independent contractors. It applies to all employers with four or more employees, while the federal Civil Rights Act hostile work environment laws apply to employers with 15 or more workers.

The PHRA provides that it is an unlawful discriminatory practice for any employer with four or more workers to discriminate:

"Because of the race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin or non-job related handicap or disability, or the use of a guide or support animal because of the blindness, deafness or physical handicap of any individual or independent contractor, to refuse to hire or employ or contract with, or to bar or to discharge from employment such individual or independent contractor, or to otherwise discriminate against such individual or independent contractor with respect to compensation, hire, tenure, terms, conditions or privileges of employment or contract, if the individual or independent contractor is the best able and most competent to perform the services required."

Hostile Work Environment Under Pennsylvania Law

Pennsylvania law, like federal law, doesn’t specifically define a hostile work environment. But the judicial branch has gotten involved to amplify a definition. Both laws have been interpreted to set equivalent standards as to what is required.

The harassment must be more than the occasional offensive joke, petty insult or slight. Under Pennsylvania law, a variety of different types of conduct can combine to a finding of a hostile work environment. These can include:

  • Bullying.
  • Harassment.
  • Name-calling.
  • Epithets.
  • Insults.
  • Offensive photographs or videos.
  • Violence.
  • Threats of violence.
  • Offensive jokes.
  • Offensive pranks.
  • Offensive drawings.
  • Unwarranted discipline.
  • Unwarranted job scrutiny.
  • Threats regarding being fired or disciplined.
  • Threats of transfer or actual transfer to a less desirable job or work location.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances

or sexual harassment.

When Hostile Work Environments Are Illegal

As is the case with federal law, it is important to recognize that Pennsylvania does not make all hostile work environments illegal.

To be illegal, the work environment must be hostile toward a person's protected category or status. The hostility must be directed toward their race, color, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender identify, age or disability.​ If someone is harassed for their political beliefs or the perfume they wear, it won't count for a hostile work environment.

Legal Standard for Hostile Work Environment

A victim subjected to a hostile work environment can bring an action against the employer if the circumstances meet the legal standard. This has been described by some courts as discrimination based on protected status that is:

  • Intentional.
  • Pervasive.
  • Regular.

The discrimination must also be shown to cause detrimental results to the worker.

Intentional, Pervasive and Regular

What does it mean that discrimination or harassment must be intentional, persuasive and regular? How do courts interpret these requirements?

These requirements are interpreted based on the entire circumstances of the situation, so an exact and definite standard is not possible.

But, in general, courts require that the harassment, bullying or other discriminatory behavior be so regular that it becomes an integral part of the work environment, altering the conditions of employment. Simple rudeness, an off-hand joke or casual offensiveness are not sufficient.

Impacts of Behavior on a Victim

In some cases, the victim may be led to believe that acceptance of the discriminatory and offensive behavior has become a condition of continuing employment.

For example, if a worker feels that they must allow and accept unwanted sexual overtures from a supervisor at work in order to keep their job, this is sufficient to create a hostile work environment. This is the case if sexual behavior is coerced even if their agreement could be seen as voluntary.

Doctrine of Respondeat Superior

Keep in mind that the harassment can originate from coworkers and workplace visitors, as well as from supervisors and managers. Under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer can be held responsible for the actions of their employees in the workplace in the course of performing their jobs.

The employer will be liable for harassment and discriminatory behavior by management and supervisory personnel, but also for coworker and visitor harassment if it can be shown that the employer knew or should have known about the issue but did not take requisite or appropriate action to protect the worker from harassment.

Detrimental Effect of Workplace Harassment

The legal standard in Pennsylvania also requires a showing that the harassment or discrimination is so severe and pervasive that it detrimentally affects the worker. This could be shown by poor job performance, failure to be promoted, or the loss of other chances for advancement.

However, in Pennsylvania, if casual offenses and discrimination detrimentally affect the worker because they are particularly sensitive to them, this may not constitute a hostile work environment. The courts have established what might be called a "reasonable person" standard.

That is, when pursuing a hostile work environment claim, the worker must show that any reasonable person in the protected class would suffer from the given work environment. The work environment must be both subjectively hostile to the worker and objectively hostile to what is referred to as a “reasonable” person.

Responding to a Hostile Workplace

Although every worker faced with an illegal hostile work environment will have their own, personal reactions, it is important to understand the steps to take to get legal protection.

Lawyers working in the area suggest that the victim of a hostile work environment should make a concerted effort to document in writing and in detail every action that harasses or discriminates against them.

An employee with union representation can ask for assistance or file a formal grievance. They should consult their employee handbook or policy manual and follow the steps required to report harassment and discrimination. An employee also has a right to file a written complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission (PHRC) or to contact a private attorney specializing in employment issues for legal advice.