Discrimination |
December 20, 2021

What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is defined in California as conduct that occurs because of an employee’s sex, race, disability, or other protected traits and creates a hostile, offensive, oppressive, or intimidating work environment. Engaging in this type of behavior by anyone in the workplace is prohibited under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Hostile work environments are unlawful when they sufficiently offend, humiliate, distress, or intrude upon the victim, disrupting the victim’s emotional tranquility in the workplace, affecting the victim’s ability to perform the job as usual, or otherwise interfering with or undermining the victim’s personal sense of well-being.  

Protected Classes Under California Law

California law prohibits discrimination against anyone on the basis of having any or combination of the following traits:

  • Race
  • Color         
  • National origin
  • Ancestry
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • Age (if over 40),
  • Disability
  • Genetic information
  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • AIDS/HIV positive status
  • Medical condition
  • Political activities or affiliations
  • Military or veteran status
  • Victims of domestic violence, assault, or stalking, and
  • Citizenship status.

If you can prove that you have been harassed based on any of these traits, then you may have a case to hold your employer responsible for a hostile work environment.

Harassment can be committed by both supervisors and non-supervisory alike. In other words, one need not be a supervisor or serving in a supervisory role to have hostile work environment law apply to them when they engage in the prohibited harassing behavior; rather, the law applies to both those in a supervisory role and those who are not and are merely co-workers.

Hostile work environment is different from other forms of harassment recognized under California law, namely, “quid pro quo,” when an employer conditions future employment or benefits on the employee’s participation in unwanted sexual conduct or acceptance of abusive or offensive conducted related to the employee’s gender. 

Another form of harassment that can be hostile work environment is bullying based on a protected trait. Workplace bullying can be a hostile work environment when both of the following are true:

  •  The conduct is based on a protected trait such as race, age, gender, national origin, and others as designated under the law.
  •  The behavior is unwelcome and creates a hostile, offensive, oppressive, or intimidating work environment. 

Who To Sue for Hostile Work Environment?

As provided under the law, employers can be sued if any employee engages in behavior that meets the definition of hostile work environment. If it is a supervisor who created hostile work environment, then the employer is strictly liable for the harassment. If the harasser is someone other than a supervisor, then the employer can only be held responsible if it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to make serious efforts to protect the employee from it. 

If you believe you are a victim of hostile work environment, contact the office of Minnis & Smallets to discuss your situation.