Hostile work environment occurs when harassment or unlawful discrimination creates an offensive, oppressive, or distressing atmosphere for an employee. It is illegal for an employer to allow a hostile work environment to persist, and if it does, they may be found liable.
The courts do not consider all incidents that make an individual uncomfortable as evidence of a hostile work environment. In fact, most hostile work environment cases require a recurring behavior that creates a pervasively oppressive workplace over time. Nevertheless, a single severe incident, such as sexual assault, can render a workplace permanently distressing and hostile for an employee.
Usually, a single comment is not enough to establish that hostile work environment. In a recent case,Satterwhite v. City of Houston
, provides a helpful illustration of how courts view offensive comments. Mr. Courtney Satterwhite, the plaintiff, was offended when a coworker, Harry Singh, said “Heil Hitler” during a meeting. He reported the incident to human resources, and Singh was verbally reprimanded. Satterwhite complained to the Anti-Defamation League, which sent letters to the City Controller’s Office and City Office of Inspector General.
Singh was later promoted, resulting in Satterwhite directly reporting to him. It was later alleged that after Singh found out that Satterwhite was the source of the complaints, he disciplined Satterwhite and recommended that he be demoted.
Satterwhite sued the city, claiming that he had been unlawfully retaliated against under Title VII after complaining about Singh’s comment. Both the District Court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the City of Houston.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals clarified its decision by noting that in order to establish a case of retaliation under Title VII, Satterwhite would have had to show that:
- He engaged in an activity that was protected under Title VII;
- He was subjected to an adverse employment action;
- The adverse employment action was a result of the protected activity.
According to the court, Satterwhite’s activities were not protected under Title VII because Singh’s single comment could not be reasonably interpreted to constitute a hostile work environment. In other words, a complaint to human resources does not automatically mean one is engaged in protected activities. The complaint that one is making to human recourse must be about activity that is barred by Title VII; extensive enough to rise to the level of sexual harassment or discrimination.
What to do if you are uncertain about whether you have experienced hostile work environment
New York State and New York City laws are much more liberal in their definition of what constitutes hostile work environment. It is not always be easy to determine whether you have been a victim of hostile work environment. If you are unsure as to whether your situation qualifies as unlawful hostile work environment, call Akin Law Group at 866.685.5163 to schedule a free consultation. Our lawyers can use their extensive legal knowledge and courtroom experiences to help you better understand your case.