Hostile Environment Harassment: Definition & Law

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Hostile work environment harassment is one of two types of sexual harassment. Learn more about a hostile work environment and its legal requirements from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.


Imagine that you were a woman who just got hired as a foreman at a new construction company. Your job as foreman requires you to supervise a construction crew of 50 employees, 47 of whom are male. Your second day on the job you hear the male employees making various sexual comments about you and other female employees. The comments continue throughout the week. You even witness one of the male crew members making an inappropriate gesture about the body parts of another female employee.

You talk to your boss about it. He replies that it is just 'guys having fun' and that you are being 'overly-emotional.' You decide that your boss is right and start avoiding their comments and gestures even after they have started directing them toward you. Four weeks later, you walk into your office and find a picture of your head posted on a swimsuit model on the wall with a derogatory comment next to it. You show your boss the picture and he laughs.

You decide to put in your two weeks' notice and go talk to your friend who happens to be a lawyer. She informs you that your employer created a hostile work environment, which is a form of sexual harassment.

What Makes a Work Environment Hostile?

Sexual harassment refers to any unwanted or inappropriate behaviors that are sexual in nature, sexual comments, or sexual advances. A hostile work environment occurs when an employee is subjected to unwelcome or offensive comments or behaviors within the work environment that interferes with the employee's ability to complete his or her job. This type of harassment can be created by anyone within the workplace, including supervisors, co-workers, contractors, and customers. In addition, anyone who is affected by the comments or behaviors can be a victim, even if the comments or behaviors were not directed specifically toward them.

Examples of a hostile work environment include:

  • Supervisor Bill changes Sally's work schedule to second shift, makes offensive comments about single mothers, and gives Sally extra responsibilities around the office hoping that she will quit.
  • Every day for lunch, Susie's male co-workers gather around Jim's (her office mate) desk and discuss their sexual activities.
  • Jake is an African-American branch manager of a bank. Every time he arrives on time for work or fixes an error that no one can solve, his co-workers make a joke concerning his race.
  • Sam is passed over for a promotion. Instead it is given to Antonio, a Latino American. Sam calls Antonio names, makes jokes about Antonio's heritage, and sabotages Antonio's presentation that he had been working on for weeks.
  • Kara is a waitress at a bar. She complains to her boss about being groped several times a day by some of the local patrons. Her boss tells her to 'suck it up' and pressures her to quit if she cannot handle 'a little tap on the behind.'

Legal Requirements

Specific legal requirements must be met in order to establish a hostile work environment. The victim of the harassment must show that the comments or behaviors were:

1. Unwelcomed or not wanted by the victim.

2. Based on the victim's class or status as protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Protected classes include race, color, religion, sex, and nationality.

3. Severe enough to cause a serious disruption in the victim's ability to perform his or her job.

For example, a co-worker who pops bubblegum every two minutes and laughs hysterically at jokes may be annoying, but it is not severe enough to constitute a hostile workplace.

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