Everyone deserves to work in a space where they feel safe and respected, but unfortunately that is not always the case for all employees. Discrimination or harassment in the workplace, if serious enough, can rise to the level of a hostile work environment, and if that is the case, an employee subjected to this type of abuse may have a claim for compensation. If you or someone you know has been harassed or discriminated against by an employer, talk to the experienced Baltimore employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP today to schedule a consultation.
What is a Hostile Work Environment?
Both state and federal laws protect workers against a hostile work environment. Maryland’s anti-discrimination laws and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect employees from a hostile work environment caused by discrimination or harassment in the workplace. Under these laws, a hostile work environment exists when an employee is either:
- Subjected to discrimination based on their actual or perceived belonging to a protected class, or
- Subjected to harassment and abuse so severe and pervasive that it changes the employment conditions and creates a hostile environment
It is important to note that unlike other types of workplace harassment, a hostile work environment can be created by anyone at work, including a supervisor, coworker, customer, or client.
If the hostile work environment is being caused by discrimination in the workplace, an employee must be harassed based on their actual or perceived belonging to a protected class, which includes their race, national origin, color, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy status, and disability status.
If the hostile work environment is being caused by severe and pervasive harassment in the workplace, the conduct must either be ongoing or so serious in nature that a single incident is enough to constitute a hostile work environment. When determining whether a situation merits this determination, the courts will typically look at the frequency and severity of the conduct, whether there were physical threats or humiliation versus merely offensive speech, the identity of the perpetrator, whether the behavior was subjectively abusive, whether the behavior interfered with the employee’s ability to do their job duties, and the impact of the behavior on the employee’s physical and psychological health.
Examples of a Hostile Work Environment
Behavior and harassment that creates a hostile work environment can take many different forms. Some of the most common examples of a hostile work environment include pervasive instances of the following:
- Offensive jokes or comments
- Sexual comments or inappropriate touching
- Crude or inappropriate pictures or emails
- Using offensive gestures, symbols, or images
- Racial slurs
- Expressing negative stereotypes or opinions about a protected class
- Actual physical or sexual violence
However, behavior that is annoying but not necessarily discriminatory or abusive is not considered serious enough to rise to the level of a hostile work environment. This includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- Casual comments
- Isolated incidents
Filing a Hostile Work Environment Claim
There are specific steps that must be taken when filing a hostile work environment claim in Maryland. The first step is to lodge a complaint with the human resources department at work. While in some cases this may resolve the issue, in most cases it does not; however, it places the employer on notice that a hostile work environment has been created. If the behavior creating the hostile work environment does not stop, the next step is to hire an experienced employment law attorney and file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
A claim filed with the EEOC must be made within 180 days of the last incident that perpetuated a hostile work environment. Once a charge has been made, an investigation is done by the EEOC into the claims of a hostile work environment. This may include interviewing witnesses, gathering documentation, and performing a site visit to the workplace. If the EEOC finds that a hostile work environment exists, they will take the appropriate action to rectify the situation and compensate the employee for the harm caused to them in the workplace. If they do not find enough evidence to constitute a hostile work environment, the employee will be given a “right to sue” letter by the EEOC.
If given a “right to sue” letter, an employee can file a lawsuit in court for a hostile work environment claim. This process operates the same as any other court case, with a full discovery process, pretrial motions, negotiations for settlement, and if necessary a trial in front of a judge and jury. It is critical that a knowledgeable Maryland employment law attorney handle this process, as they have the experience necessary to zealously advocate for their client.
Liability and Compensation for a Hostile Work Environment Claim
An employer is automatically liable in a hostile work environment case if the behavior is coming from a supervisor and that supervisor took an adverse employment action against the abused employee. An employer can also be liable if the hostile work environment is created by a non-supervisory employee or non-employee like a customer, if the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take corrective action.
Employees subjected to a hostile work environment deserve to be fully compensated for the harm caused to them in the workplace. Depending on the circumstances of the case, this can include back pay, reinstatement, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages if the employer’s actions were so willful and wanton that it deserves additional punishment from the court. To learn more, talk to one of our experienced employment lawyers today.
Call or Contact Our Office Now
Are you or someone you know facing significant challenges at work because of behavior that qualifies as a hostile work environment? If so, the experienced employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP in Baltimore are here to help. Call the office or contact us today to schedule a consultation of your case and learn more about your legal options.