What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?

Almost all workers — full-time or part-time, employee or independent contractor — has some aspect of their jobs that is less than desirable. Plenty of workers have bosses (and coworkers) that are jerks. Very rarely do those two situations result in an actual hostile work environment; there is quite a high bar workers must clear in order to convince a civil court they were victims of a hostile work environment. Salas Law Firm will shed some light on this often-misunderstood legal concept. The bottom line, it is difficult for an aggrieved employee to prevail unless the employee suffered from a severe and pervasive hostile work environment. The most common type is hostile environment sexual harassment. 

Protected Classes

For a claim to rise to the level of a hostile work environment, the worker must first establish that the poor treatment is connected with a protected class. In other words, workers must be subjected to abuse or harassment based on their: 

  • Age
  • HIV/AIDS diagnosis
  • Color
  • Race
  • National origin
  • Citizenship status
  • Disability
  • Marital status
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Genetic information
  • Sickle cell trait

The 12 protected classes we listed above do not include gender identity and sexual orientation, which were, essentially, added by the U.S. Supreme Court as federally protected classes in a landmark case (Bostock v. Clayton County). Other protected classes are codified through a variety of federal and state laws. 

What Does a Hostile Work Environment Look Like?

There are no bright lines that make up a hostile work environment. Typically, a worker must experience a pattern of poor treatment to bring a successful hostile-work-environment claim. In other words, a single isolated incident — except for the most egregious ones — is unlikely to rise to the level of a hostile work environment. Behavior that can contribute to a hostile work environment includes: 

  • Inappropriate and demeaning “jokes” overheard by the worker in question or disseminated through email
  • Using racial slurs and other bigoted language
  • Insults and other offensive behavior
  • Inflicting physical harm

After establishing that a worker is a member of a protected class and has continually been subjected poor treatment on the basis of that protected class, there are two more conditions that must be satisfied to have a good chance at a hostile work environment claim: 

  • The conduct becomes a condition of continued employment for the worker; and/or
  • A “reasonable” person would consider the conduct to be “intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” 


Salas Law Firm routinely handles complicated and stressful employment law claims. In addition to helping workers obtain justice, we also represent companies dealing with meritless lawsuits from current and former employees. If you suspect you might need representation for a hostile work environment claim or other employment law matters, call our firm at (954) 315-1155 to set up an appointment with our team.

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John Salas

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