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What exactly is a "hostile work environment?"

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

man faces a hostile work environment in his workplace

Having a jerk for a boss does not necessarily mean that you're in a "hostile work environment." But, we all recognize that workplace bullying (whether or not it crosses the line into illegality) has become an epidemic in the American workplace. At the end of the day, the definition of "hostile work environment" used by normal people and the definition used by employment lawyers can be very different. Let's talk about it!

What is the legal definition of a hostile work environment?

The exact term “hostile work environment” cannot be found under the Maryland’s Fair Employment Practices Act (“MFEPA”) nor is it in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (or the Federal Anti-harassment Law). There is no exact definition on this based on these statutes.

However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does state that, “it shall be unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Since your "work environment” is considered a “term” or a “condition of employment” mentioned in Title VII, we're off to the races.

However, not all “hostile work environment” situations give rise to civil litigation. There are certain unpleasant situations that may be difficult, annoying, or even harmful, but do not fall under the legal meaning of a “hostile work environment” as contemplated by law.

Although unprofessional, being a jerk boss is not necessarily against the law and having one does not necessarily give you a cause of action to litigate.

If you experience discrimination based on protected classes or characteristics of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which are the following:

  • Race;

  • Color;

  • Religion;

  • Sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy); or

  • National origin

... then you might have a case under a “hostile work environment” theory. Moreover, under the Maryland’s Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”) the following are protected characteristics:

  • Race

  • Color

  • Religion

  • Sex

  • Age

  • National origin

  • Marital status

  • Sexual orientation

  • Gender identity

  • Genetic information

  • Disability

  • The individual’s refusal to submit to a genetic test or make available one

Harassment based on any of these protected characteristics can give rise to a hostile work environment claim.

What are the requirements for a “hostile work environment” to be appropriate for legal action?

Petty fights, annoyances, and rudeness are not illegal. To be illegal there must be a showing that the conduct created a work environment that is hostile or offensive to you or someone else.

To meet the requirements of a hostile work environment, the behavior at issue must be:

  1. Unwelcomed;

  2. Based on a protected characteristic;

  3. Severe or pervasive; and

  4. Imputable to the employer

The first requirement is simple enough. Most harassment and hostile conduct is unwelcome.

As to the second requirement, protected characteristics include race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. You would have to show that the harassment or complained conduct was linked a protected class. This is the “why” of the harassment.

The third requirement is that it must be severe or pervasive. It must be subjectively and objectively severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere in the workplace. It must interfere with an employee’s ability to perform his or her work and changes the term and conditions of your employment.

A determination of whether harassment is severe or pervasive enough to be illegal is made on a case-by-case basis and evaluates all the circumstances surrounding the conduct.

The following circumstances are given careful consideration in evaluating severity or pervasiveness:

  1. the frequency of the discriminatory conduct;

  2. whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and

  3. whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

The last requirement is that the complained conduct must be imputable to the employer; this means that there is only liability if your employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take effective action to stop it.

Hostile conduct may include catcalling, sexual slurs, physical assaults or threats, mockery, insults, offensive pictures or remarks, work performance interference, malicious gossip or defamation, and intimidation. A lot of unwelcome conduct may lead to a hostile work environment but the most common one is when a supervisor harasses an employee.

What else should I know about "hostile work environment" claims?

Here are a few notes on what gives rise to a hostile work environment claim:

  • The harasser can be your supervisor, an agent of your employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee (a client or an independent contractor)

  • There is no need for monetary damage for you to be a victim of harassment experiencing hostile work environment

  • The victim need not to be the person harassed. Anyone who is affected by the hostile offensive conduct may be a victim.

What are instances that are not considered a "hostile work environment"?

You should also consider that there are situations where a hostile work environment does not exist, especially when the actions are considered managerial functions. For example:

  • Being told that you are disrespectful if you disagreed,

  • Being told to turn over more work to a coworker,

  • Being asked for information as to what time will you be leaving for work, arriving at the office, or even tracking your vacation time.

Remember that a hostile work environment requires "severe" or "pervasive" conduct.

What you need to do if you think you are experiencing “hostile work environment”?

Whatever the situation is, it is always best to make clear to the harasser that the hostile conduct is not welcome and should stop.

If you are employed with a larger organization or company, your workplace may have a complaint or grievance process that could result in corrective action against a harasser.

If unsure, it's always best to contact an attorney for a legal opinion since every case is different. If in doubt when is it time to contact a lawyer, the answer is now, especially when you can get a free, confidential consultation at many employment law firms, including the Employment Law Center of Maryland. Do not wait months or years to do so as you might lose your chance.

When you're ready to start fighting back, we'll be by your side. Contact a hostile work environment lawyer for a free, confidential consultation. Act now!


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You don't have to fight alone.

Book a consultation with one of our Maryland employment lawyers today.

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