The term hostile work environment is frequently misinterpreted and misconstrued. A hostile work environment goes beyond the grumpy boss and disgruntled employees.
Moreover, a hostile work environment is not a stand-alone claim. As explained by the Colorado Department of Human Services, it is a byproduct of discrimination or harassment of a protected class – race, religion, disability, color, or national origin.
Essentially, it is the negative environment symptomatic of other negative behavior, like sexual harassment or age discrimination, for example.
Hostile Work Environment Definition
The EEOC states that the hostile work environment definition includes: unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, 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.
How to Respond to EEOC Hostile Work Environment Cases: But, more important than understanding the terminology – employers need to know exactly how to respond to serious EEOC allegations involving an EEOC hostile work environment claim. Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.
Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment in a hostile work environment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:
- The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
- The victim does not have to be the person harassed but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
- Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take appropriate steps to prevent and correct unlawful harassment. They should clearly communicate to employees that unwelcome harassing conduct will not be tolerated.
Employers can do this by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process, providing anti-harassment training to their managers and employees, and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains. Employers should strive to create an environment in which employees feel free to raise concerns and are confident that those concerns will be addressed. See information about age discrimination.
Employees are encouraged to tell the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. Employees should also report harassment to management at an early stage to prevent its escalation.
Colorado Employer Liability for Hostile Work Environment: Colorado employers are automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages. If the supervisor’s harassment results in a hostile work environment, the employer can assert a defense and avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. These are areas where an employer discrimination defense lawyer can help.
- Colorado employers will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom the employers have control.
How Does the EEOC Review Hostile Work Environment Colorado Cases Against Employers? When investigating allegations of harassment or hostile work environment, the EEOC looks at the entire record: including the nature of the conduct, and the context in which the alleged hostile environment occurred. A determination of whether harassment is severe or pervasive enough to be illegal is made on a case-by-case basis.
Colorado employers must take reports of illegal conduct in the workplace seriously. Colorado Courts can view an employer’s negative reaction(s) to such reports as creating a hostile work environment that may not have existed before.
- Employers must immediately conduct an unbiased investigation into the allegations.
If you are an employer who needs immediate help conducting an investigation into serious allegations accompanying an EEOC hostile work environment claim and/or navigating the litigation quagmire, which may result from such allegations, call our Colorado Employment discrimination defense attorneys at 1-866-601-5518.