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When does harassment become a hostile work environment?

If you are like most California employees, you probably dread going to work some days. Unfortunately, few, if any, people can honestly say that they consistently love going to work. Most workplaces have at least one or two people who make work life difficult for others either via general negativity or outright harassment

If you must deal with one or more such people, however, at what point does his, her or their harassment rise to the level of a hostile work environment for which you could file suit against your employer? The answer to this question involves a myriad of factors, including the following:

  • What type of harassment did your co-worker perpetrate against you?
  • For what period of time did this harassment continue?
  • How intense was this harassment?
  • How did this harassment negatively affect your workplace productivity and performance?

Words versus actions

To prove hostile work environment, you usually need to prove that your co-worker’s harassment of you amounted to more than mere words. As an example, regardless of how uncomfortable your co-worker’s incessant off-color jokes make you feel, they do not constitute a hostile work environment, even after you tell him or her to stop it. The same holds true for snide or deprecating remarks about your appearance, your personal habits, your lunchroom food, etc.

In general, your co-worker must actually do something to you rather than just say something to you for his or her words to rise to the level of hostile work environment. However, the one exception to this has to do with the exact words (s)he uses. If things (s)he says to you are so lewd, offensive or demeaning that your work suffers because of them and the humiliation they cause you, you may be able to convince a judge or jury that these words constituted a verbal assault against you. If you can prove verbal assault, this represents the necessary “act” for hostile work environment.

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