What to Know About Hostile Work Environments

by Madison Fiedler-Carlson

I’m being bullied at work and I think my job has become a hostile work environment.  People aren’t treating me with respect and it’s affecting my work.  Can you help?

We see a lot of complaints about a “hostile work environment.”  This makes sense—many workplaces can feel hostile.  However, whether you have a harassment claim often depends on (1) why you are being bullied or treated unfairly, and (2) what kind of bullying you are experiencing.

To have a hostile work environment claim, you must be treated differently because of a protected characteristic.  Iowa and federal law have listed out characteristics that are protected:

  • Race
  • Nationality
  • Sex
  • Gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Disability

If you are being bullied because of something that is not listed—like your hair color, your personality, their personalities, your favorite sports team, or even something completely arbitrary and unfair—your work environment may literally be hostile, but it is likely not a “hostile work environment” under the law.

So, what does “hostile” mean under the law?  It means offensive conduct that “becomes a condition of continued employment” (putting up with the offensive conduct becomes a part of your job), or offensive conduct that is so “severe or pervasive” that a “reasonable person” would consider it abusive.

Conduct that is “severe” usually means a few (or more) extreme, offensive incidents, like death threats based on your protected characteristic or a physical assault.  Conduct that is “pervasive” can be less-extreme offensive incidents that happen over time that are extreme when viewed as a whole, like a co-worker constantly touching you or hitting on you even though you’ve complained.

This conduct must be bad enough that a “reasonable person”—an imaginary, normal, perfect person—could experience the same conduct you did and also feel that it was offensive, hostile, or intimidating.  The conduct must be objectively offensive.  Small offenses, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless they were very serious isolated incidents) will also not rise to the level of severe or pervasive conduct.  A reasonable person would have to find the conduct intimidating, hostile, or offensive.

For example, if you had a close friend at work who left you a stuffed animal at your desk as a gift, and you just happen to have a personal, subjective, burning hatred of stuffed animals, that gift of a stuffed animal will not be severe or pervasive enough for a hostile work environment claim because an objective, reasonable person would not find that offensive.

If you believe you might have a hostile work environment claim and want to find out more, please contact an experienced employment law attorney as soon as possible.

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