Some employment law terms are fairly straightforward. For example, both discrimination and sexual harassment are common terms and therefore most Americans are familiar with them. However, some employment law terms are more vague and difficult to grasp. The concept of a “hostile work environment” is an example of a vague legal term that is truly meaningful but also somewhat difficult to get a handle on.
The federal Bureau of Land Management defines a hostile work environment as follows, “A hostile work environment is a form of harassment. It is demonstrated by such severe and pervasive conduct that permeates the work environment and
interferes with an employee’s ability to perform his or her job.” One can easily see how this definition is both meaningful and is vague enough to inspire questions about its practical application.
One recent case provides an interesting example of a hostile work environment. A former employee of a United States congressman is suing the lawmaker for a variety of reasons, including a hostile work environment allegation. The former employee insists that her boss “regularly drank to excess” and had a “tendency to flirt.” These regular behaviors resulted in inappropriate behaviors. In addition, the lawmaker’s chief of staff also allegedly contributed to this hostile work environment.
This case is an interesting example of a hostile work environment primarily because it illustrates how pervasive conduct could potentially interfere with an individual’s ability to perform his or her job. The details of any particular hostile work environment case will be different. However, the ultimate consequences of the inappropriate behavior will result in interference with job performance.
Source: The Washington Post, “Rep. Farenthold office sued by former staffer for ‘hostile work environment,’ ‘gender discrimination’,” Colby Itkowitz, Dec. 16, 2014