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What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?

Many workers have at one point had to deal with an unpleasant work experience. In situations like this, you might hear the term “hostile work environment” tossed around. This might seem like an accurate way to describe a workplace where coworkers are disagreeable or negative policies are in place. However, a hostile work environment is much more serious than this.

At Bantle & Levy, we know how important it is for employees in hostile work environments to feel supported and get help. Knowing what is considered a hostile work environment is sometimes difficult, and you might be unsure if your workplace is considered one.

Elements of a Hostile Work Environment

As stated above, this type of work environment isn’t the same as a workplace that can cause negative experiences for employees. A hostile work environment is a legal term that refers to workplaces where discriminatory actions, behaviors, and communication make employees feel unsafe, unwelcome, and makes it difficult for them to work. Anyone in the workplace, including coworkers, supervisors, and even outsiders, such as frequent customers, can perpetuate this specific type of environment.

Although any misconduct or mistreatment at work should be dealt with accordingly, hostile work environments, in particular, should never be tolerated. Employees who experience this type of work environment may be able to take legal action against their employers.

Here are some of the elements that constitute a hostile work environment in New York.

There are Discriminatory Behaviors

A hostile work environment is a form of discriminatory harassment. For a workplace to be considered a hostile work environment, there has to be discriminatory conduct against a protected class. This includes discrimination based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability, and national origin. Of course, discrimination of protected classes in the workplace of any kind is illegal.

These Behaviors Have Impacted Employees’ Ability to Work

Understandably, employees are heavily affected by workplace harassment. Discriminatory behaviors take a toll on those targeted, especially when this treatment is persistent. Eventually, these behaviors can affect an employee’s ability to work and perform their duties. Discriminatory behaviors may cause employees to find it difficult to work or cause them to lose motivation, making their work suffer as a result. An employee’s quality of work decreasing can also worsen the harassment and put their job at risk. Other employees can be affected by a hostile work environment even if the discrimination and harassment aren’t targeted at them.

How are New York Hostile Work Environments Different?

Under New York state and city laws, what elements need to be present to constitute a hostile work environment differ from federal law. Here are two key ways that New York City hostile work environments are different.

Behaviors Do Not Need to Be Severe or Pervasive

Under federal law, there needs to be ongoing, consistent discriminatory behaviors for a workplace to be considered a hostile work environment. However, in New York, a workplace can be classified as such even if the behaviors and actions are not severe or pervasive. Workplaces in New York may be considered hostile work environments if employees receive unfair treatment due to their association with a protected class.

The Behaviors Need to Be More Than “Petty Slights” or “Trivial Inconveniences”

In New York, behaviors and actions need to be more than “petty slights” or “trivial inconveniences” for the workplace to be considered a hostile work environment. If a reasonable person with the same protected characteristics of the employee making the claim would view the conduct as only petty slights or trivial inconveniences, it may not be a hostile work environment.

Employees Do Not Need to Make a Complaint

Ideally, when employers are notified of harassment and discrimination, they will rectify it and hold those causing the situation accountable. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Often, an employee needs to make a complaint to their employer regarding the harassment before their workplace is considered a hostile work environment. This is not the case in New York, and employers can be held liable even if the employee did not make a complaint.

Take Action Against a Hostile Work Environment

Differentiating a workplace that is a hostile environment and one that is generally unpleasant can be challenging. Because of this, it’s important to consult with an experienced employment law attorney. Even if you’re unsure if your workplace counts as a hostile work environment, it’s best to speak to an attorney. An attorney can assess the details of your situation to see if you have a claim.

Bantle & Levy is here to stand up for employees who have suffered from hostile work environments. Contact an experienced employment lawyer in New York City to see what you can do to obtain justice.

Bantle & Levy

Lee Bantle is a partner at Bantle & Levy LLP. He has extensive legal expertise, admitted to the bars of the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals. With a distinguished academic background and clerkship experience, he has been recognized as a top-rated civil rights attorney and esteemed lawyer. In addition to his successful career, he has actively contributed to various legal organizations and serves as a faculty member for NYU's Annual Workshop on Employment Law for Federal Judges.

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