It seems like whether you are an employer or employee, you have to worry about legal ramifications around every action or inaction you make through the day.
One of the default go-to’s in the world of employee / employer accusations is that the work environment is too hostile. But its just not that simple – the legal requirements for a hostile environment are hard to actually meet. As an owner or supervisor, this is kind of a double-edged sword. It’s hard for your employees to actually sue you and win, but you might still get dragged through the an exhausting and non-productive process to get there.
People tend to think that if a boss is too hard on them, or a coworker is rude, or they don’t have the benefits and perks they are looking for, that they have a reason to file a complaint and kick-off legal action. However, the reality is that you have to be in a situation where a coworker or supervisor makes your job impossible to do through their actions or the way they communicate with you.
The hardest part for you is that you aren’t the only one that can cause a problem like this – a supervisor or manager you employ, or even just another employee can create a hostile environment. So it’s important to be aware of what the legalities are.
To meet the legal definition for hostile work environment:
- The actions or behavior must be discriminatory against a protected classification of employees – such as age, religion, disability, or race.
- There must be evidence, or at least a reasonable assumption, that the employer knew (or should have known) about the actions or behavior, and did not sufficiently intervene.
- The offensive behavior or communications must be severe in nature. It must extremely disrupt the employee’s work over a period of time, or significantly impact their career progress (such as costing them a promotion).
- It has to happen over time, and can not be limited to a single annoying comment. The offended person must also have reported the incident to Human Resources or a supervisor without it having been investigated and addressed effectively by the company.
So as an employer – your liability is significantly reduced just by responding quickly, and effectively to a report!
This includes providing a documented way for an employee to report a complaint. Don’t forget that your employee handbook is a great place to keep this type of information since it is reviewed when they are hired and is readily accessible to them throughout their employment.
When you receive a complaint, be sure to respond appropriately. Again – your disciplinary policies should be in your handbook. If you aren’t sure how to respond, follow the handbook and your company procedures.
If you aren’t sure if your company has the appropriate measures in place to prevent, and resolve, claims like those of a hostile work environment, then you can grab our free HR Self-Audit Checklist to help you review your company and get yourself on track to prevent time-consuming and costly law suits.