In an ideal world, everyone would come home from work feeling like they’re a valued and respected team member. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Not only do some people come home from work exhausted, upset, and drained, some are afraid to attend work for fear of how an employer or coworker will treat them. This work environment is wrong and, in many cases, illegal. You may be in a hostile work environment if you feel like you’re being singled out, mistreated, or harassed at work. However, proving you are part of a hostile work environment isn’t easy and involves careful, calculated steps that’ we’ll discuss below.
Before we dive into how to prove you’re in a hostile work environment, let’s take a quick look at what a hostile work environment is and isn’t. A hostile work environment occurs when an employer or an employee harasses a worker so severely that it prevents that worker from doing their job. This harassment can be anything from verbal threats, physical abuse, demotions, docked pay, and much more. However, an employee that annoys you or is occasionally rude to you does not constitute a hostile work environment.
Now that we know what a hostile work environment is and isn’t, the tricky part is proving to the judge and jury that you’re a part of one. You must prove these five things:
The EEOC defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, genetic information, or disability.” Federal laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, safeguard these protected characteristics. Therefore, you’re not protected under federal law if a coworker harasses you because they don’t like your favorite sports team or the clothing you wear.
Proving whether something is abusive or offensive can be difficult as it can depend on the person, but this is one of the points you’ll need to prove in court. In many cases, an aggressor is smart enough not to outright say something cruel or offensive, such as racial slurs or epithets. Therefore, it is up to the judge and jury to determine if a reasonable person would feel offended by the same action. They will dismiss your case if they determine you were overly sensitive.
One incident of rude, cruel, or offensive behavior is not enough to constitute a hostile work environment. The behavior must be continuous and pervasive over time. Essentially, you’ll have to prove that there is a history or pattern of behavior. The only exception to this rule is instances of physical assault, in which case the judge only needs one instance to prove pervasive behavior.
Keep in mind that you’re not just proving any environment is hostile. You’re proving that your work environment is hostile. Therefore, you must prove that the environment the aggressor created affected your ability to do your job. Fearing coming into work due to abuse, having trouble focusing because of the abuse, or the abuse is hindering your ability to complete your work counts as interference. Also, you’d have solid evidence to help you build a good case if you were unfairly demoted or passed over for promotion.
Before you can file a hostile work environment claim, you must file a report within the company and give them the opportunity to investigate. This process is true even if the person conducting the harassment is your manager, supervisor, or fellow employee. The courts will consider the company liable for creating a hostile work environment if they fail or refuse to investigate or resolve the issue. Only then can you file a claim.
Knowing what you need to prove in court is crucial to conducting the next step—collecting evidence. Before doing so independently, consider hiring or speaking with an attorney to help point you in the right direction. Typically, an attorney will advise you to collect the following:
At some point during the court proceedings, you must recount what occurred. While you’re not expected to remember every single detail exactly when and how it happened, documenting the incident soon after it occurs can help. Try your best to write down the who, what, when, where, and why of what occurred as soon as possible. This document won’t necessarily count as solid evidence, but it helps you keep track of what occurred and allows you to build a timeline of events to prove a pattern of behavior.
After you’ve written down the details of what you can remember, you should make it a point to obtain digital and physical copies of all relevant correspondence. This correspondence should include texts, emails, voicemails, letters, private messages, reviews, and any other documentation. It’s important to avoid keeping only digital files, especially if you’re leaving them on your computer at work. It’s very easy for the wrong person to delete evidence on their end and yours. Be sure to keep multiple copies in a safe place, whatever evidence you document.
Reaching out to potential witnesses is important. Such witnesses could include anyone who was present when the incident occurred or someone who has been a victim of similar harassment. Inquire about their experience, ask them if they would be comfortable testifying, and get their contact information. You don’t have to worry about interviewing them and getting the ins and outs of what they saw or heard—that’s a lawyer’s job. Your job, for now, is to collect a list of witnesses to give to your lawyer.
Be sure to speak to anyone who may have witnessed the aggressor’s behavior that was directed toward others if you don’t have any direct witnesses. However, it’s okay if you don’t have any witnesses. Judges understand that just because no one else was there to witness the events doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
While proving you are part of a hostile work environment can be difficult, hiring a hostile work environment lawyer can make things easier. Our dedicated team at the Law Firm of Tamara N. Holder represents employees like you whose employers have failed to protect. Don’t let aggressors get away with bad behavior. Contact the Law Firm of Tamara N. Holder today.