Hostile Work Environment

Florida Attorneys

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Unpleasant work situations can make an employment opportunity more challenging to manage. Employees sometimes face challenges such as a rude or overly critical boss, lack of employee benefits, or uncomfortable office space. When these issues escalate, it can often feel necessary to approach the problem with legal force. However, to file a suit against an employer for damages due to a hostile work environment, you must meet the requirements specified by the legal definition.

Under state law, harassment and hostile work environments can violate the Florida Civil Rights Act, which secures all individuals the freedom from discrimination due to age, sex, religion, color, pregnancy, disability, race, national origin, or marital status.

If you or someone you work with is experiencing a hostile work environment, you may be entitled to legal action. Consult with an experienced attorney to evaluate the evidence and decide whether a lawsuit is the best course of action.

What Is A Hostile Work Environment?

According to United States Labor Law, a hostile work environment can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, coworkers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the victim interacts on the job.

Such unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive. In the case that a coworker, boss, or manager’s behavior makes doing your job impossible, thereby altering the reasonable expectations of a comfortable place of employment, you may have grounds to pursue legal action.

Under federal law, a hostile work environment claim is considered workplace discrimination and is monitored by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While some harassment or discrimination is more apparent, there are some signs to look for in a hostile work environment:

  • Frequent conflicts between team members
  • Increase in complaints
  • Decrease in attendance
  • Lack of resources
  • Heightened job insecurity
  • Employee burnout

If you are in a management position and begin witnessing one or more of these behaviors, it could indicate a hostile work environment. Consider creating an opportunity to check in with your team members and request feedback on working conditions or general workplace comradery.

Take note of any complaints, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and implement any necessary changes to evaluate differences in the working environment. Once a work environment has become harmful, it can be more challenging to encourage corrective behaviors, so remaining proactive is the best way to prevent an incident.

How Should I Deal With A Hostile Work Environment?

When dealing with a hostile work environment, the first approach is to attempt to confront the issue at hand. If your manager or coworker behaves inappropriately, bring up your concerns professionally and ask them to stop. If direct confrontation is unsuccessful, consider speaking with human resources to request a mediator or other conflict intervention. In the instance that an employer fails to investigate the claim or take sufficient action to protect your right to a safe and productive work environment, considering seeking legal support.

If you are a manager dealing with an employee who is contributing to a hostile work environment, consider taking the following actions:

  • Practice conflict resolution skills
    • Navigating conflict resolution can be especially challenging with someone who fails to recognize their inappropriate behavior. Practicing this skill and further developing your ability to confront employee behavior can boost your confidence when issues arise.
  • Get a human resource professional involved
    • This individual can both provide guidance in a disciplinary setting and act as a witness to the attempt at conflict resolution.
  • Put the troublesome employee on notice
    • If an employee fails to adhere to warnings or requests for changes in behavior, work with your human resources department to formally address the situation.
  • Request further guidance from your employer
    • If the employee continues to behave inappropriately, involve additional leadership or management. For a hostile work environment claim to stand in a legal dispute, an employer has to know about the incidents and be given an opportunity to investigate or resolve the negative behavior.
  • Consider terminating the employee
    • A hostile work environment can be detrimental to a place of business, not only with regard to productivity and general workplace interactions but also from a legal standpoint. If you are in the place of leadership and fail to address issues of harassment, you can be held liable for negligence. Terminating an employee who creates a dangerous and inhospitable workplace will protect both you and your employees from legal action.

What Do I Need To Prove A Hostile Work Environment?

Due to the nature of a hostile work environment being a discrimination claim, you will need to provide evidence of workplace harassment against a protected classification, including:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Ancestry
  • National origin

Additionally, you will need to prove that the actions taken were pervasive and intended to cause harm. A coworker who exhibits rude or obnoxious behavior such as laughing loudly in the office or not cleaning up their coffee spill may make the workplace uncomfortable but wouldn’t constitute a hostile work environment.

However, if that same coworker regularly credits work output to your race or makes persistent comments about your religious beliefs, that would qualify for legal action. Regardless of whether the person intends the commentary to be a joke or otherwise playful, the behavior itself is considered discriminatory and subject to legal repercussions.

Another qualification for a hostile work environment is the failure to investigate employee claims or constructively address repetitive behaviors. Therefore, it can be helpful to document in writing your attempts to bring any discrimination concerns to the attention of management. Such notification of management can be in the form of emails or written meeting requests to discuss the topic. Demonstrating a history of attempted resolution will provide evidence that the workplace hostility was ignored.

Some hard evidence that you may consider providing in the case of a hostile work environment are:

  • Handwritten notes or memos
  • Voicemails or phone records
  • Photographs of offensive material or working conditions
  • Texts or emails
  • Performance reviews
  • Written evidence of workplace violations
  • Witness testimonies or contact information
  • Can I Be Fired For Reporting Hostile Behavior?

Retaliation for filing a complaint or acting as a whistleblower is illegal, and employers can be held liable for wrongful termination. Employees are legally permitted to raise concerns over federally protected rights, including workplace safety, working conditions, harassment, or discrimination. Any action taken against workers who voice their concerns is considered retaliation, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

What Does Constructive Conflict Resolution Look Like?

Conflict resolution is critical to implementing changes in a hostile work environment. Whether you are an employee approaching conflict with another employee or a manager mediating a dispute between team members, there are several steps you can take to address the needs of everyone better. Practicing conflict resolution skills can drastically improve communication among your team members, increase camaraderie, and prevent further issues from arising. In addition to being a careful listener and taking notes on any workplace complaints, you can:

  • Respond actively
    • The best way to approach a conflict is to demonstrate empathy and indicate that you recognize the problem at hand. Consider using phrases such as, “I understand that you feel…” or “What I hear is that you are concerned about…”. This will let the individuals involved know that you are attentive to their needs and recognize an opportunity for change.
  • Remain calm
    • It is not unlikely that conflict results in heightened emotions and inflammatory language. Do your best to refrain from name-calling, exaggerations, or profanity. When possible, stick to the facts, attempt to remove any emotional appeals, and restate inflammatory language in objective ways. Keep the focus on the conflict itself rather than the resulting emotions.
  • Analyze the problem constructively
    • Ask each party to express their concerns and encourage a productive reflection on why those concerns are present and what can be done to resolve them. Ask questions like, “What would be an ideal solution to this problem?” or, “What is the root cause of your concerns?” When possible, try to redirect emotional responses to factual knowledge and provide a variety of avenues for resolution.
  • Focus on the future
    • The past can be helpful in determining the cause of a conflict but is not as productive for reaching a solution. When approaching conflict resolution, prioritize what needs to change moving forward and what can be done to facilitate such changes. Discuss the past for context, but focus on the future to find a solution.
  • Maintain confidentiality
    • Do not discuss the conflict with other parties. Refrain from venting about the problem with others in the workplace, and address any rumors that are already in circulation. Sharing the dispute outside of affected parties can quickly escalate the situation and result in widespread rumors.
  • Accept conflict as a natural part of working relationships
    • Recognize that conflict is normal and accept it as a common reality of being part of a team. Denying the presence of tension or believing that minor conflicts are unacceptable in a workplace will prevent employees from approaching it productively and may increase hostility.

When a solution is reached, be specific as to how the conflict will be approached moving forward and put a plan in place for continued progress. If needed, establish a schedule for checking in and evaluating the success of the resolution.

The Importance Of Maintaining A Conflict-Free Workplace

Proactively approaching workplace conflicts to avoid the development of a hostile work environment should be part of a business’s risk mitigation planning process. Evaluating potential risks and preemptively implementing procedures for conflict resolution will help avoid possible legal action.

Ensuring that employees and their leadership team have access to a safe and welcoming work environment is the first step to avoiding conflict and preventing conflict. Additionally, establish a proactive means of following up on risk mitigation efforts by:

  • Promoting an open-door policy
  • Encouraging employee and leadership communication
  • Create opportunities for team building and bonding
  • Require harassment and discrimination training of all levels of employees
  • Implement a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and harassments
  • Model appropriate workplace behavior from the top levels of management
  • Provide reliable resources for conflict resolution and work to remove any stigmas regarding consults with human resources

Creating a successful business and avoiding legal action means creating a positive and inclusive work environment for all levels of employees. When the right steps are taken to prevent conflicts from arising and appropriately address them if they do, a business is more likely to succeed and maintain a healthy place of employment in which future candidates will want to take part

Taking Legal Action Against Hostile Work Environments

Lower-level employees and company leadership alike maintain the rights to a safe and welcoming work environment. If you are enduring a hostile workplace, it is important that you take the necessary steps to rectify the situation. An employment law attorney can guide you through enacting your legal rights to a work environment that is free from discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

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