What is a hostile work environment?
According to The Legal Dictionary, a hostile work environment occurs when there is “unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated in their place of employment.”
A hostile work environment occurs when employees feel they are being harassed due to their national origin, sex, race, religion, age, or disability. According to the US Department of Labor, the “unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive.”
If you're accused of creating a hostile work environment, it is also important to know what it is not. Even the court system struggles to define what a hostile work environment is or is not.
An unpleasant workplace such as dealing with an obnoxious co-worker or difficult work assignments is not “hostile.” Unfortunately, many frivolous complaints are made by employees who do not know the difference. But, those complaints can still be troublesome whether they come from a coworker or an employee you supervise.
In 2017, 5,811 cases were decided in Merit Systems Protection Board Regional and Field Offices.
In 2017, the average time a federal employee waited for a resolution of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint was 543 days.
The two sides to hostile work environment complaints
A federal employee may feel subjected to a hostile work environment and file a complaint against a fellow employee or supervisor. Both people have a point of view about the work environment that differs.Both have options on how to respond. Here are four things you can try:
1. An employee who feels subjected to your hostile behavior may want to discuss it with you before lodging a complaint. You should welcome this opportunity to try to resolve the situation before a complaint is filed.
Listen carefully to the other side, and discuss how the situation can be resolved.
2. Keep a written record of the conversation especially in the event the individual is not satisfied with your response. This shows you have made an effort to resolve it. Bear in mind the person approaching you is also trying to establish that he or she has made an effort towards resolution.
3. Employees who feel subject to a hostile work environment are advised to keep a detailed record of what they say happened, who is involved, and potential witnesses. If you become aware of a potential complaint, it is critical that you do the same to defend your actions.
4. If you become aware of a potential complaint, it may be advisable to go to your supervisor or human resources to discuss it. It is likely the person with the complaint will do the same, so it is your opportunity to both show you are being responsive and present your point of view.
An employee with a complaint of a hostile working environment may decide to contact an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor. This is a step required before filing a formal complaint. Often the EEO counselor will attempt to mediate and resolve the situation. Your records will help in the discussion.
If the person accusing you does not agree with how the situation is resolved, that person can begin a formal complaint process.
When do you need help addressing a possible hostile work environment complaint?
Even frivolous complaints require serious attention. You may be in the right but could still pay a heavy cost in terms of your career or possible legal action taken against you.
Many federal employees have opted to obtain professional liability insurance protection — just as professionals do in medicine, financial services, contracting, and more.
It is possible that the complaining employee has engaged an attorney especially when a case goes beyond mediation. When you are subject to a complaint, you need to do the same.
“If a federal employee is accused of creating a hostile work environment, they should seek legal advice and counsel early in the process. Hopefully, the issue can be resolved with mediation, but receiving direction from an attorney experienced in federal litigation can help increase the likelihood that the complaint is resolved favorably,” says Darrell Weber, Vice President of Starr Wright USA. Starr Wright USA provides professional liability insurance for federal employees.
If you are faced with disciplinary action ranging from a warning letter to demotion to removal, you need legal representation if you want to appeal it. Depending on the disciplinary action such as a suspension, you have the right to an attorney, opportunity to respond, and access to materials that had an impact on your case.
An attorney can advise you what your options are including whether the action taken against you was conducted properly. In addition, an attorney will help you draft your rebuttal, which can be written and oral. An attorney can also present a response based on the “Douglas Factors,” established by the US Merit Systems Protection Board. Douglas Factors can lead to disciplinary penalties being reduced based on your years of successful service, a first-time offense, and other mitigating circumstances.
“If the mediation is unsuccessful, and you have to defend yourself, you are best served by having an attorney experienced in federal cases on your side,” says Weber.
- Legal Dictionary
- U.S. Department of Labor: What do I need to know about Workplace Harassment
- How Much Is Enough? Difficulties Defining “Hostile Work Environment” In Title VII Harassment Claims
- At the EEOC, harassment cases can languish for years
wrightusa.com. Starr Wright USA is a division of Starr Insurance Companies, which is a marketing name for the operating insurance and travel assistance companies and subsidiaries of Starr International Company, Inc. and for the investment business of C.V. Starr & Co., IncStarr Wright USA is a marketing name for Starr Wright Insurance Agency, Inc. and its affiliate(s). Starr Wright USA is an insurance agency specializing in insurance solutions for federal employees and federal contractors. For more information, visit