Question: What is the Definition of a Hostile Work Environment?
Answer: There are actually two types of “Hostile Work Environments”: 1) legal; and 2) illegal. To see which you are experiencing, consider the story of Lenora.
Perhaps you have experienced something like Lenora, a conscientious nurse who loved her patients and felt valued at work — until her co-worker became her boss.
Lenora worked as a nurse at a hospital in California and felt fortunate to have her job, until administration promoted Lenora’s co-worker Michelle to be the new Head Nurse. Sure Michelle was a good nurse, but after her promotion Michelle dramatically changed from a pleasant if shy co-worker into an angry tyrant. Michelle raised her voice at many of the nurses, but singled Lenora out for particularly harsh bouts of yelling, often in front of other employees. If two or more nurses were standing and talking, or, assisting in an emergency, then Michelle would yell only at Lenora and not the other nurse.
Being Singled Out For Abuse Contributes to a Hostile Work Environment
A Co-Worker Can Become a Bully Boss
Michelle began talking like Lenora was in serious trouble for her performance. Lenora, however, had no idea what she was doing wrong. One day Lenora was looking at a patient’s records on a computer when she stopped and turned around to answer a question by a CNA. Michelle came swooping over and exploded at Lenora for “violating HIPAA.” Lenora just said “What are you talking about?”, which only made Michelle more angry. Michelle said “I’m talking about patient rights. I’m talking about none of your co-workers want to work with you! I’m talking about you better shape up or you are out of here!” Lenora looked at the CNA who just shrugged his shoulders. Lenora felt confused and unfairly singled out and alone. She started to cry. Michelle just walked away.
The next day Lenora called in sick for the first time in 10 years. Over her 18 year nursing career Lenora knew that she had never received a “bad” appraisal; each year her performance reviews, if one was done at all, were positive. But now she felt attacked for doing the same things that had made her a good nurse. Lenora felt so sick at the idea of going back to work that she was thinking of going to see her own doctor. She wondered if she needed to consider anti-depressants. She called in sick a second day in a row and decided to call her brother-in-law, Curt, who was a lawyer in a big firm.
Nitpicking and Yelling Contribute to a Hostile Workplace
Two Definitions of Hostile Work Environment
What Curt first said to Lenora shocked her: “There’s nothing illegal about a hostile work environment.” Lenora was mad. That didn’t seem right at all. She knew that what she was going through was wrong. No one should be harassed at work the way she was.
Curt tried to explain. “There’s really two types of hostile work environments: legal and illegal. A legal hostile work environment is when a jerk of a boss causes an employee to feel so completely stressed out with unfair, mean treatment that the employee feels he or she may have to quit to save their health. The bully boss yells, treats the employee unfairly, blames the employee for anything that goes wrong, and constantly threatens discipline or even termination.
“An illegal hostile work environment is caused by a boss who is not just a jerk, but also a bigot. The work environment must be stressful because the boss is hostile toward a protected class like race, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability and the like. In other words, to be illegal the boss must treat you unfairly because you are part of one of these legally protected classes. Treating you unfairly for any other reason is not legally prohibited.
The Law Does Not Require Supervisors to be Civil
“So” Lenora said to Curt, “my boss Michelle can single me out to be her scape goat, and there’s nothing wrong with that unless I’m a minority or something like that?”
“Exactly,” said Curt. “Unless you are part of a protected class, there’s no legal action you can take. Courts do not want to require that everyone be nice and polite to each other at work. The Supreme Court even said in a case called Oncale v. Sundowner that federal employment law is not “a general civility code for the American workplace.” Getting people to treat one another with respect is something an employer can choose to require, but the law does not outlaw rude people.”
A boss who is merely rude and unfair, or even a real bully who is randomly mean, is acting legally as long as his or her bad behavior is not directed at people because of their protected class status.”
Lenora said “This is horrible. I thought the law was supposed to protect me!”
“Well maybe it does,” said Curt.
People Feel Huge Relief When They Learn Their Workplace Rights
The First Step in Fighting Back
Curt continued, “Protected classes can be powerful weapons in fighting back against a boss who causes a hostile work environment that seems legal at first.”
“Listen,” said Curt, his voice dropping to a whisper, “at this firm we defend companies; I’m supposed to be on your boss’s side. But… but why don’t you drive downtown and meet me for lunch. I’ll explain a bit more about protected classes and at-will employment.”
“Great!” said Lenora. “I’ll call you when I get close to your office.”
Read Part 2 of Lenora’s story by clicking HERE.
Can You Identify With Lenora?
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