What Does ‘Hostile Work Environment’ Actually Mean?


By: Olivia Gee

In 1986 Mechelle Vinson, a bank teller employed by Meritor Savings Bank, accused her manager (who was also the vice president of the company) of continual sexual harassment. At trial, the District Court found that Vinson was not the victim of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination while employed at the bank. However, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed this decision under violation of Title VII, stating that there are two types of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo: harassment that conditions concrete employment benefits on sexual favors or behavior; and
  2. Hostile work environment: harassment that, while not directly affecting economic benefits, creates a hostile or stifling working environment

The United States Supreme Court upheld the decision in Vinson v. Meritor Savings Bank (1986) that ‘hostile work environment’ sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII.

An employer has created or permitted a hostile work environment when there are frequent unwelcome comments, advances, requests, or actions that are sexual in nature and that negatively interfere with a person’s job performance. This includes:

  • Displays of inappropriate or offensive materials
  • Sexual jokes
  • Interference with someone’s ability to move and work freely
  • Persistent, unwanted interactions, such as asking for dates continually

In general, conduct must be unwanted and frequent or pervasive (or both) to be considered conducive to a hostile work environment. Whether or not these criteria have been met is determined on a case-by-case basis. A workplace is not usually deemed a hostile work environment if the activity in question was an isolated occurrence that was not repeated.

Unlike ‘quid pro quo’ harassment, a hostile work environment does not require any employment benefit to be at risk. Since it is not tied to the promise or threat of particular employment actions, this type of sexual harassment is found across all levels of employees. Another important distinction here is that inappropriate behavior between employees may also create a hostile work environment for other employees who were not actually the target of the behavior.

What must you do to make a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim?
The legal requirements for hostile work environment sexual assault include the following:

  • The harassment a victim suffered was based on his or her sex, the victim must show that he or she was treated differently because of their sex.
  • The behavior or communication must be pervasive, lasting over time, and not limited to an off-color remark or two that a coworker found annoying. These incidents should be reported to Human Resources for needed intervention.
  • The problem becomes significant and pervasive if it is all around a worker, continues over time, and is not investigated and addressed effectively enough by the organization to make the behavior stop.
  • The hostile behavior, actions, or communication must be severe. Not only is it pervasive over time, but the hostility must seriously disrupt the employee’s work. The second form of severity occurs if the hostile work environment interferes with an employee’s career progress.
  • It is reasonable to assume that the employer knew about the actions or behavior and did not sufficiently intervene. Consequently, the employer can be liable for the creation of a hostile work environment.

-Olivia Gee

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