Jerks: they’re everywhere. Unfortunately, “everywhere” also includes the workplace. It is an unavoidable fact of life that at some point, or even multiple points in our lives, we will encounter people in our workplaces who simply do not like us, with or without a reason why. The same is true for how we feel about others; we may not like them with or without a reason why. However, at what point does someone not liking us and being a jerk become harassment or a hostile work environment?
There are many misconceptions regarding the definition of a hostile work environment (HWE). From a legal perspective, HWE is more than a boss being a jerk, coworkers not talking to you, a supervisor constantly nagging you about getting your work done, feeling stressed at work (who doesn’t!), not liking the job, or similar. An easy way for me to understand this is remembering HWE is escalated harassment as defined by The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Employers with more than 15 employees are covered; 20 employees for age-related claims. I’ve recapped the definition below and adjusted formatting for viewing ease:
Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).
Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on:
Sex (including pregnancy)
Age (40 or older)
Disability or genetic information
Harassment becomes unlawful where:
1) Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or
2) The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
I love memes. Since a meme is a picture with words and pictures can tell a thousand words, I will share two which I think get the message across on what harassment or hostile work environment is not:
It’s important to remember that, per the EEOC, “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.” Context matters when determining whether an occurrence may be harassment or not. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the harassment must be happening because of someone’s race, color, religion, etc. as listed above.
Sadly, legitimate hostile work environment claims are real. Below are three real examples:
A group of women, including one under the age of 18, were subjected to sexual harassment by managers and workers including being told to show more cleavage at work, receiving texts with requests for sex, unwelcoming touching, and a manager texting a picture of his penis.
An African American employee was called racial slurs such as "spook," "spade" and "Buckwheat." Coworkers made other racially derogatory comments, including "n----r-rigged". The harassment was witnessed by the supervisor, but no action was taken to stop it. Another African-American employee complained to an executive but nothing was done.
A 65-year old white female front desk clerk was repeatedly told she was "too old" and "the wrong color" by the hotel general manager who terminated her.
Leaders, including HR professionals, have a responsibility to call out bad behavior and fully investigate claims. The above examples should motivate us to protect the dignity of all employees and to highlight the importance of a harassment-free workplace with our leaders and workforce. Many states have specific training requirements. A good place to start regardless of industry is with the EEOC’s own resources: Checklists and Chart of Risk Factors for Employers.
Beyond “following the law”, it is best practice to promote a workplace that is civil, engaging, respectful, and truly inclusive. That’s the kind of place that attracts and retains talent.
We spend a lot of time at work. Let’s make it a great place to spend our time.