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What Is a Hostile Work Environment? - Definition, Laws & Examples

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
A hostile work environment is an important concept in employment discrimination law. In this lesson, you will learn what a hostile work environment is and some of the employment laws that use the concept, and you'll look at some examples.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a concept in employment discrimination law in which unwelcome and discriminatory conduct is so severe that it creates an offensive and abusive environment for an employee. The concept of a hostile work environment is important for both employers and employees to know. Employers need to know so they don't encourage or tolerate a hostile work environment - an employer can be liable for encouraging or permitting a hostile workplace. Employees also need to understand the concept so they don't encourage a hostile work environment, and they can benefit from knowing their rights if they are a victim of a hostile workplace.

Laws that Use the Concept

Many federal employment laws utilize the concept of a hostile workplace. Some of the most important include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prevents discrimination in employment based upon race, color, national origin, sex and religion, including the creation of a hostile work environment. For example, an employer permitting the posting of racial jokes is guilty of creating a hostile workplace.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The ADEA prohibits employment discrimination based on age for applicants or employees that are 40 years of age or older. A hostile work environment is also prohibited under the act. For example, constant and pervasive jokes about an employee's old age creates a hostile work environment that subjects the employer to liability if the victim is 40 years or older.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects disabled applicants and employees from discrimination, including a hostile work environment. For example, a manager constantly harassing a disabled employee about the need to accommodate the employee's disability creates a hostile work environment.
  • Sexual Harassment. Title VII prevents sexual harassment, which is quintessential of a hostile workplace environment. For example, sexist jokes or continuous and unwelcome sexual advances from a co-worker constitute a hostile work environment.

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