The Ubiquitous Terms “Harassment” & “Hostile Work Environment”

By Michael A. Starvaggi, Esq.
Over the past several years, the phrases “workplace harassment” and “hostile work environment” have been given significant attention in the media. As a result, these phrases have made their way into the vernacular and have, unfortunately, become misunderstood. The fact is that the legal definitions of “harassment” and “hostility” are not the same as those found in the dictionary.

          The laws against creation of a hostile work environment and workplace harassment are found in state and federal civil rights legislation. Therefore, a valid claim under these theories can arise only when the impetus behind the aggressive conduct is discriminatory on the basis of protected legal categories such as race, ethnicity, gender and religion. A boss who singles a worker out for mistreatment based solely on personality conflicts is not guilty of discrimination in the legal sense.  In Forrest v Jewish Guild for the Blind, 3 N.Y.3d 295, 786 N.Y.S.2d 382 (2004), the New York State Court of Appeals addressed this issue, stating, “mere personality conflicts must not be mistaken for unlawful discrimination, lest the anti-discrimination laws become a general civility code.”

         Simply stated, the law does not prohibit a supervisor from being rude, loud or nasty in general. If the motive behind the supervisor’s conduct is not discriminatory in the legal sense (i.e. based on the employees gender, race, age or other protected status), there is no claim for harassment or creation of a hostile work environment. Thus, while many workers may legitimately feel a sense of hostility surrounding them in their work environment, that hostility often does not meet the very specific criteria required in order to establish legal harassment or hostility.

          Furthermore, even if the behavior of the employer is found to be based on the employee’s protected status, there will only be recourse under the law if the harm caused is sufficient to interfere with “terms and conditions of employment.” Of course, terminating or refusing to hire an employee based on protected class status is de facto harm.  However, whether an employee has a claim against an employer for making the workplace uncomfortable  based on the employee’s protected status* depends on “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 23, 114 S.Ct. 367, 126 L.Ed.2d 295 (1993).  This is the actual legal analysis for creation  of a hostile work environment.

The analysis of workplace discrimination is nuanced.  However, it is safe to say that the Webster’s Dictionary definitions of harassment and hostility do not always translate to actionable legal claims.  Legal discrimination, harassment and hostility in the work environment always require animus based on protected class status and, even if that criterion is met, a valid claim also requires adequate harm.   Both employers and employees are well served to understand these distinctions in order to avoid wasting resources on unsupported claims.
*Note again that the definition of hostile work environment includes the requirement that the hostility is based on the employee’s protected class status such as gender, race or age.

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