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Legal Insider: Hostile Work Environment EEO Claims

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This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Northern Virginia that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

What constitutes hostile work environment is often confusing. Many employees often assume that general bad behavior exhibited by a supervisor or coworker constitutes a hostile work environment claim for purposes of filing an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint.

Typically, an EEO complaint based on hostile work environment must involve actions taken as a result of discriminatory behavior. In other words, a hostile work environment involving a supervisor that is petty, obnoxious, mean, or otherwise terrible to work for, without the element of discrimination as the basis for the conduct, is not necessarily an actionable EEO hostile work environment case.

In general, employees can and do suffer from an unpleasant work environment for reasons other than unlawful discrimination. While such conduct is inappropriate and unfortunate, it may not provide a basis for an EEO complaint. In order to show a hostile work environment for the purpose of filing an EEO complaint, employees generally need to show that:

  1. The actions taken were discriminatory or harassing against them based on their race, religion, national origin, gender, age, etc.
  2. They were subject to harassment (verbal or physical) as a result of the discrimination.
  3. The discrimination is pervasive. In other words, it persists over time.
  4. The hostile behavior is severe.
  5. The employer knew or should have known about the discriminatory behavior.

Here are a few examples of a hostile work environment:

  1. An employee, who is an older woman, is subject to constant ridicule in the office by her supervisor for work-related mistakes due to her age. Her supervisor often makes comments that “she should retire.” The employee reports the situation to Human Resources, which does not address the issues, and the supervisor continues his/her harassing behavior.
  1. An employee, who is African-American, is subject to repeated offensive racial comments at work by a supervisor in front of other employees. The employee takes the matter to the employer’s president who declines to take action. The supervisor continues his/her discriminatory behavior.
  1. An employee, who is female, is consistently asked out on dates by a co-worker even though she has politely declined the requests. The employee then begins to receive notes on her office door from the co-worker with inappropriate remarks. She reports the situation to her manager and Human Resources, which takes no action in the matter, and the harassment continues.

The examples of different types of a hostile work environment are too numerous to cite, but the harassing behavior has to involve discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national origin or other protected categories. Again, if a supervisor or co-worker is hostile, mean or even engages in bizarre behavior, it may not rise to the level of an actionable EEO hostile work environment case.

If you need assistance with an employment law issue in Virginia, please contact our office at (703) 668-0070 or at www.berrylegal.com to schedule a consultation. Please also like and visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BerryBerryPllc.

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