As a California worker, you undoubtedly have days when you wish you did not have to go to work. Possibly that is because your workplace is not always the pleasantest place to be. You may have to deal with people who incessantly tell off-color jokes, make negative comments about you or other co-workers, make discriminatory and/or offensive comments to you, or otherwise make your life miserable. This type of workplace harassment can rise to the level of a hostile work environment.
Sadly, many forms of workplace harassment still exist, despite the fact that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits them. As you know, this Act prohibits discrimination based on any of the following:
- Race or ethnicity
- Political views
The good news is that this same law affords you protections against a hostile work environment. The question is, do your particular workplace and the things to which you are subjected actually constitute a hostile work environment?
As you might suppose, there is no all-encompassing definition of hostile work environment. Instead, these cases are highly fact-dependent, and the situation that one court decides is hostile is not necessarily the same as the situation another court would. Nevertheless, courts tend to take the following factors into consideration:
- How severe the harassment was
- How long it took place
- Whether or not it negatively impacted the plaintiff with regard to his or her work performance and productivity
One thing that courts have pretty well decided is that words alone seldom constitute a hostile work environment. Not only must you show that the words offended you, you also must show that they were objectively offensive, i.e., that any reasonable person would likewise find them offensive. In addition, under most circumstances the person who said the words must also have committed an offensive act.
The exception to this general rule is in the case of verbal assault. If you can show that the words your co-worker said were so egregious, vulgar, lewd and/or hurtful that they embarrassed and/or humiliated you, the judge or jury may well conclude that your co-worker committed a verbal assault against you.
Although proving a hostile work environment is difficult, if you win your lawsuit, you likely will receive damages sufficient to recoup any medical bills and lost wages you sustained, as well as your emotional distress. You may also receive punitive damages if the judge or jury determines that your employer knew or should have known about your harassment but failed to stop it.