Hostile work environment claims are making a comeback.

Over the last nine months, Craig Henry PLC has experienced a dramatic increase in calls about hostile work environments. A hostile work environment is one where unwelcome comments or behavior based on gender, race, age, nationality, religion or disability occur with such frequency or severity that they interfere with an employee’s ability to do her job or otherwise create a offensive or intimidating work environment.

Typically in hostile work environment cases, an employee is subjected to repeated comments that relate to their membership in a protected class. For instance, an African-American employee may be subjected to racial epithets, comments about their appearance, pictures of or actual nooses in their work area and so forth. We have heard from a number of employees recently who report regular use of the n-word at work. A woman might be subjected to comments about her physical appearance, requests for sexual contact, unwelcome touching or exposure to pornographic pictures. Common examples include male co-workers or supervisors standing uncomfortably close to female employees and brushing up against them as they walk past.

A hostile work environment may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Kentucky Civil Rights Act. To be a violation, the conduct has to be “severe or pervasive.” It is rare for a single act to be severe enough to create a hostile work environment, but a physical assault may be sufficient to meet this standard. It is more common to claim the conduct is pervasive. The pervasive standard applies to less egregious behavior that occurs so frequently that it alters the work environment. This means that the comments, gestures, and so on occur very often – perhaps daily or weekly.

If you experience this type of behavior at work, it is important to document what happened. Keep a journal that includes the date and time of the behavior, an exact description of what happened or what was said, the full names of any witnesses and the response by the company.

It is also important that you report the harassment to your employer. Do not be vague in your report – you must put your employer on notice that the behavior is based on a protected characteristic. Review your company’s policy on reporting harassment and follow it exactly. Include in your journal notes about exactly what you reported, to whom you reported it and when you made the report. Finally, be sure to keep your journal somewhere outside of your workplace.

If you are subjected to a hostile work environment at work, Craig Henry PLC is happy to talk about your situation to determine if you have a claim under state or federal law.

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