According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a hostile work environment “can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the victim interacts on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive.”
The investigation of hostile workplace claims is a type of employment law and may involve a variety of situations including discrimination, harassment, wrongful termination and retaliation.
Discrimination in the Workplace
Employment discrimination can be considered a form of workplace injury. This refers to discriminatory employment practices such as bias in hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination and compensation, and various types of harassment. This discrimination is not limited to certain traits or characteristics. Discrimination can take place against anyone for anything dependent on the work environment and those who are discriminating.
Workplace discrimination is regulated by both federal and state laws, so it can vary from state-to-state. Federal laws, regulated by the
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), protect against most kinds of workplace discrimination.
Federal law prohibits employers from making professional decisions based on the following:
- Genetic information
- National origin
- Sex (including pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation)
It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
The EEOC notes that discrimination based on race and gender are the two most commonly “reported” areas of discrimination. However, that does not necessarily mean these are the two areas most discriminated against. Despite laws and regulations protecting workers from discrimination, it is very difficult to take a chance reporting discrimination and jeopardize your current position with your employer. Not all employers are the same and will react in the manner they are supposed to, thus making it very difficult for the victims of discrimination to take that risk. Often, employees let the discrimination go unreported simply because they don’t want to jeopardize their position with their employer.
Closely related to the issue of discrimination is retaliation. Retaliation may occur in the workplace when an employer punishes an employee for an action that is permitted by law, but which the employer wants to discourage. For example, an employer may retaliate against an employee who makes harassment or discrimination complaints, who reports fraud or other wrongdoing in the workplace, or who participates in an investigation within the workplace. Some employers also retaliate against employees who report workplace injuries to state or federal authorities.
As mentioned earlier, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it is illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
Retaliation may come in many different forms, from outright firing, to demotions, being denied a promotion or a pay raise, or being reassigned to a less desirable job or shift. Some retaliation is subtle, but if it negatively affects an employee and deters him from taking action, it can be illegal.
There are federal and state laws in place that protect employees from illegal retaliation in the workplace. This is true even if the action for which the employee was targeted turns out to be unfounded, as long as the claim or action was made in good faith. Employees in certain cases are also protected by whistleblower laws.
Harassment and Sexual Harassment
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are two main types of unlawful harassment in the workplace: Quid Pro Quo Harassment (or “this for that”), and Hostile Work Environment Harassment.
Quid Pro Quo harassment involves a person in power, like a supervisor, who has the power to make or recommend employment decisions, requiring an employee to accept unwanted terms in exchange for keeping their job or getting a raise or promotion. This is most commonly seen in circumstances of sexual harassment, where an employee is pressured to accept unwanted advances or to actually participate in a sexual relationship with a supervisor.
Quid pro quo harassment can also be seen in situations of discrimination against someone’s religious beliefs, where an employee is pressured to participate in a religious activity as a condition of their employment.
Sexual harassment is outlawed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it is a form of discrimination, as explained by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The agency defines sexual harassment as “[u]nwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” We are looking at any claim involving extreme sexual harassment or sexual assault.
It is important to note that harassment is a violation of the law only when the conduct is unwelcome AND violates the employee’s protected status.
Harassment can take the form of conduct that directly affects the way the employee is treated. This is known as disparate treatment discrimination, such as when an employer treats a worker unfavorably due to characteristics like race, gender, nationality, etc. Harassment also can also manifest in policies or procedures that put a worker at a disadvantage. This is called disparate impact discrimination, for example when an employer’s policies or procedures appear to be treating everyone equally, but instead, affect certain categories of people unfairly.
Hostile Work Environment harassment can involve any type of unwelcome conduct perpetrated by a supervisor or anyone else in the workplace with whom the employee is forced to interact regularly. This may include co-workers, customers and contractors. This type of harassment ranges from using language that makes the employee uncomfortable or that is demeaning, using crude gestures, unnecessary touching, sabotaging the employee’s work, or even physical violence against the employee.
It is not uncommon for an employee to believe he or she was wrongfully fired, especially if it seems to have been done without a just cause, but U.S. employment laws are very specific about what constitutes wrongful termination.
A wrongful termination occurs when an employee is fired for an illegal reason, such as illegal discrimination or a breach of contract. Federal employment law provides that no employee can be fired on the basis of race, gender, ethnic background, religion, or disability.
An employee also may have a wrongful termination case if he or she was fired for lodging a legal complaint against the employer or for making whistleblower allegations exposing the employer’s wrongdoing. Both these examples are forms of retaliation and both are illegal.