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Recognizing the signs of a hostile work environment

Both California and federal laws entitle employees to a workplace free from discrimination or harassment. However, some forms of harassment can be more challenging to identify and recognize as illegal behavior.

There are two types of workplace sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. While quid pro quo harassment usually entails sexual favors or harassment in exchange for something, like keeping a job or getting a promotion, a hostile work environment entails a pattern of harassment.

What is a hostile work environment?

A glum, unwelcome or unfriendly work environment may certainly feel hostile at times. However, legally, a hostile work environment includes a pattern of behavior by your supervisor, coworker, manager or more that significantly interferes with your ability to work. Examples of this can include:

  • A supervisor who constantly uses sexually inappropriate expressions or jokes
  • A coworker who has inappropriate photos on their computer screen near you
  • A coworker constantly making inappropriate gestures
  • A manager sharing inappropriate or offensive photos, messages or emails
  • A coworker continually making inappropriate comments on your appearance

While such actions can seem harmless or even accidental at first, when the actions become consistent and seemingly inescapable, you may find it difficult to concentrate. This can lead to your inability to do your job and ultimately to either your employer letting you go or you searching for employment elsewhere.

What to do when you experience a hostile work environment

When the pattern of behavior interferes with your work and causes you to dread coming in to your workplace, you need to consider your options.

You may first attempt to confront the offending coworker, supervisor or manager to express your discomfort. In some cases, this may be enough to end the behavior. In others, you may feel immense hesitation to confront the individual or they may disregard your complaint. In this case, turn to your employer’s policy on how to address workplace harassment.

When your employer or human resources professional fails to take action to correct the hostile work environment, you may consider your legal options. You may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate your claim. When taking your complaint to the EEOC, remember that your employer cannot retaliate against you, including by firing you, demoting you, transferring you or more.

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