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The definition of a hostile work environment in California is any workplace in which inappropriate behavior in the workplace is severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile atmosphere for its workers. A hostile work environment often relates to sexual harassment, but can certainly involve various types of workplace discrimination, and any person with a hostile work environment claim should seek the help of a California employment law attorney. The right attorney can help you determine the best course of action in light of this employment law matter.

In Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, 38 Cal. 4th 264 (2006), the Supreme Court of California held that while annoying or merely offensive comments in the workplace are not actionable, conduct that is severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment is unlawful, even when it does not cause psychological injury to a plaintiff. Hughes v. Pair, 46 Cal.4th 1035 (2009) was another California Supreme Court case in which the court held that employment law acknowledges that an isolated incident of harassing conduct can qualify as severe when it consists of a physical assault or the threat thereof.

California Hostile Work Environment Law

California Government Code § 12923 establishes that harassment creates a hostile, offensive, oppressive, or intimidating work environment and deprives victims of their statutory right to work in a place free of discrimination when harassing conduct sufficiently offends, humiliates, distresses, or intrudes upon a victim to disrupt their emotional tranquility in a workplace, affect their ability to perform a job as usual, or otherwise interfere with and undermine their personal sense of well-being.

The law states that a single incident of harassing conduct is enough to create a triable issue regarding the existence of a hostile work environment when harassing conduct unreasonably interferes with a plaintiff’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

The law also states that the existence of a hostile work environment will depend on the totality of the circumstances, and a discriminatory remark – even when it is not made directly in the context of an employment decision or uttered by a non-decisionmaker – can still be relevant, circumstantial evidence of discrimination. The law further provides that harassment cases are rarely appropriate for disposition on summary judgment, so the California Legislature affirms the California Court of Appeals decision in Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc., 178 Cal.App.4th 243 (2009) and its observation that hostile working environment cases involve issues not determinable on paper.

Types of Hostile Work Environments

Harassment can cause a hostile workplace when it involves unwelcome conduct based on an employee’s race, national origin, color, sex (including pregnancy), age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. This means any actions or harassment that are discriminatory may generate a hostile work environment.

Not every work environment that is unpleasant necessarily qualifies as being illegal. The United States Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) says that it does not consider certain conduct illegal, such as petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents, unless such incidents are particularly serious.

Examples of hostile work environments can include:

  • Sexual or racial harassment — Two examples of behaviors that always create a hostile working environment for workers. No person can make any vulgar or crude remarks based upon a co-worker’s gender or sexual orientation. Similarly, racial slurs or other ridicule based on an employee’s race, gender, religion, national origin, or other protected characteristics is intolerable. Sexual harassment often includes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, while other forms of verbal or physical harassment can be sexual, racial, or religious in nature.
  • Discrimination of any kind — The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) states that it is illegal for employers with five or more employees to discriminate against any job applicants or employees because of any protected category or retaliate against such applicants or employees if they assert their rights under the law. For example, a hiring manager cannot reject applicants beyond a given age or applicants who happen to be female, Hispanic, Black, or foreign-born. Such behavior usually indicates a basic bias against certain classes of protected people. Such managers may also be failing to act appropriately towards current employees belonging to these groups, and such bias may foster or generate a hostile work environment.
  • Consistent aggressiveness — While this behavior itself may not necessarily be illegal, certain conduct can still constitute a hostile work environment in certain situations. For example, if a manager is constantly yelling at their assistants or other staff members over seemingly trivial matters, it could very well constitute a hostile work environment. Tactics could also include behavior that is more passive-aggressive behavior or involves forcing co-workers or subordinates into unhealthy competition.
  • Ridiculing or victimization — While employees are certainly allowed a fair amount of teasing their co-workers, the jokes or pranks still need to be in good taste. Certain actions may go too far if, say, employees are dedicating a Twitter hashtag to ridiculing a co-worker. The bottom line is that workers can target their co-employees with any kind of public humiliation.
  • Punishment threats — Some managers may go overboard with talk of disciplining employees for matters that are not that serious. Creating an environment in which workers are in constant fear of job security can most definitely constitute a hostile work environment, so companies need to be cautious in their approaches with disciplinary measures and make sure that threats are only applicable in the cases that are most deserving of action.
  • Demeaning language — Employers need to ensure their workers are not regularly engaging in epithets, slurs, gross generalizations, bigoted jokes, put-downs, offensive nicknames, or teasing.
  • Interference with job performance — Employers may move employees to different locations where it becomes impossible for them to do their jobs, provide only outdated equipment that undermines their performance, or withhold information necessary to complete job-related tasks.

A hostile work environment claim is going to rely heavily on documentation, so save absolutely every record you can of abusive or harassing conduct. Save all writings or emails, and also be sure to record the dates and times of phone conversations or conversations that you have in person about your issues.

Schedule a Free Consultation with a California Employment Attorney

If you believe that you have been the victim of any kind of hostile work environment in California, you do not have to tolerate it for another moment. Mara Law Firm can fight to make sure that you are able to recover fair and full financial compensation for all the damages inflicted upon you.

Our firm will not charge you anything to represent you because we will only get paid when we get some measure of relief for you. You can call us at (619) 648-2550 or (855) 964-1062 or contact us online to take advantage of a free consultation so we can really dig into the details of your case and go over everything that you will be able to do to get justice.

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This page has been written, edited, and reviewed by a team of legal writers following our comprehensive editorial guidelines. This page was approved by attorney David Mara who has more than 20 years of legal experience in employment law.

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