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Hostile Work Environment Examples

Author Yuriy Moshes

We have discussed already what a hostile work environment is, but that was just the theory. Now we want to provide you with a number of hostile work environment examples to give you a better idea of what it really is and to help you determine yourself whether you have been a victim or a witness of one.

If you find that something similar has happened to you, talk to an employment lawyer to ensure that it really was illegal harassment. If your lawyer’s advice is that your rights and freedoms have been violated, you may want to consider taking legal steps to find justice.

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Before that, the rest of this article will help you learn:

  • The definition of a hostile work environment
  • What qualifies as a hostile work environment
  • Sexual harassment hostile work environment examples
  • Discriminatory Harassment
    • Examples of racial harassment
    • Examples of religious harassment
    • Examples of disability harassment in the workplace
    • Examples of sexual orientation harassment
    • Examples of age-based harassment
  • Personal harassment examples
  • Examples of physical harassment in the workplace
  • Power harassment
  • Examples of psychological harassment at work
  • Examples of cyberbullying
  • Examples of retaliation
  • Examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment
  • Third party harassment
  • Examples of verbal harassment in the workplace
  • Frequently asked questions about a hostile work environment
  • BONUS – A hostile work environment complaint letter

Read it all and see if you can recognize your situation in any of these examples. If you do or if you doubt that you do, do not hesitate to call an employment lawyer for a free consultation.

Definition of Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment is an unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace which makes one or more employees feel uncomfortable, scared or intimidated in their place of employment. When someone behaves inappropriately in a workplace and someone else feels scared, intimidated, harassed or abused in another way due to their actions, that’s a hostile work environment.

hostile work environment examples

Such a work environment sometimes is called an “offensive work environment” or “abusive work environment”. It can be caused by anyone who is present at the workplace, including but not limited to a coworker, a supervisor, a business owner, an independent contractor, or someone else. Such a work environment is damaging for the mental health of the abused employee, therefore there are federal and state laws prohibiting behaviors that lead to the abuse.

Remember that an abusive work environment has two elements:

  1. a co-worker, superior, or another person at work does something abusive, and
  2. another person in the workplace feels abused because of that.

While, in general, most of the behaviors that cause someone to feel intimidated or abused are considered to create a hostile work environment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every behavior is abusive.

What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment

Any behavior that is abusive in nature may cause a hostile work environment. It always depends on the particular situation; hence it is best to consult an employment lawyer to ensure that you have a case for an illegal hostile work environment. But, in general, your situation may meet the legal requirements of a hostile work environment if:

  • The behavior is discriminatory based on gender, race, a nation of origin, sexual orientation, age, religion or disability. These categories are protected by the Equal Opportunity Commission. These are the most common bases of discrimination as well as likely sources of creating an offensive work environment.
  • A reasonable person would find the work environment hostile or abusive. If only the allegedly abused person finds the behavior abusive, it is unlikely that courts will consider it abusive as well. Employment lawyers have vast experience in such cases, so talking to one will certainly make it clear whether the case has chances in court or not.
  • The conduct has become a pervasive and a long-lasting problem. One-off accidents are prohibited by the law, but they don’t make an abusive work environment. It has to last for a while in order to qualify as such.
  • The employer has failed to address and investigate the issue. He or she must investigate any abuse claims. If they don’t, they risk allowing the workplace to become a discrimination zone.
  • The victim’s desire or ability to work has been affected. Abuse victims don’t feel good at work. As a result, their work performance is adversely affected and sometimes they even don’t want to go to work.

This is not an exhaustive list of what could make a hostile work environment. It should give you an idea about what qualifies as one, but before making any decision on further legal steps, remember that nothing beats the advice of a hostile work environment lawyer.

In the meantime, we’ll dive into specific examples of a hostile work environment to help you better understand what it is.

Sexual Harassment Hostile Work Environment Examples

Sexual harassment is one of the most common abusive behavior in the workplace. In most cases, women are the victims. The most common abusive behaviors include:

  • Sharing sexual photos (including pornography)
  • Posting sexual posters
  • Sexual comments, jokes, or questions
  • Inappropriate sexual touching
  • Inappropriate sexual gestures
  • Invading personal space in a sexual way
  • Promotion or pay raise obstacles
  • Termination

Having said that, an employee may reasonably feel sexually abused if another person at the workplace comments on the look of her body parts, makes any kind of sexual jokes, or call her or him any names in a sexual way.

There are some famous hostile environment examples of sexual harassment. One of them is Birschtein v. New United Motor Manufacturing, where a female worker suffered at the hands of a coworker who insisted to go on a date with her and stared at her at the workplace. Regarding the staring, part of the judgment says that “sexual harassment does not necessarily involve sexual conduct”. But, in the context of the events that preceded the staring, it was obvious that his intention was clearly to harass her sexually, hence the judgment.

Another one is Gupta v. Florida Board of Regents, in which a mix of touching, staring, sexual comments, over a long period of time that made a female employee feel unsafe at work resulted in a judgment against the abusive co-worker.

These and other similar cases prove that victims of sexual harassment are being protected by New York Courts, state and federal.

Discriminatory Harassment

Discriminatory harassment comes in many different forms. It can be based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, age or gender. Depending on what the discriminatory harassment is based on, we’ll provide you with different examples to help you understand it better.

Examples of Racial Harassment

Examples of racial harassment may include:

  • Racial jokes, which may seem naive, but their meaning can hurt those targeted with them
  • Racial insults, such as calling offensive names typically used to offend a certain racial group
  • Showing intolerance of differences, including intolerance to people with certain physical characteristics related to their race.
  • Promotion or pay raise obstacles
  • Termination

hostile work environment examples

Others may include but are not limited to racial slurs, disgust, degrading comments, and others.
US courts have a tradition of fighting racism. Some of their most notorious decision include Brown v. Board of Education, where the US Supreme Court prohibited segregation. If you see it happening in your workplace, do not hesitate to fight and seek justice.

Examples of Religious Harassment

Although US citizens enjoy religious freedoms, religious harassment cases are not foreign to US courts. Some of their most important cases include Campos v. The city of Blue Springs, where the court decided that the supervisor should not demand the employee do work against their religious beliefs.

As you can see, courts tend not to interfere with what makes a religious belief, therefore examples of religious harassment at the workplace are as varied as they can be. The most common, however, are:

  • Intolerance toward religious holidays, traditions, and customs.
  • Cruel religious jokes. Workers’ religious freedoms must not be targeted through inappropriate jokes.
  • Degrading stereotypical comments. Religions attract stereotypical thinking, but the employee must not be a victim of offensive stereotypical comments on a continuous basis.
  • Pressures to convert religions. Workers have the freedom to choose their own religion and must not be pressured to convert into another one.
  • Not being allowed time for religious prayer.
  • Promotion or pay raise obstacles
  • Termination

Examples of Disability Harassment in the Workplace

The most common examples of disability harassment examples in the workplace are the following:

  • Cruel jokes, comments, or other harmful teasing targeting disabilities
  • Isolation
  • Harmful teasing
  • Patronizing comments
  • Refusal for a reasonable accommodation
  • Promotion or pay raise obstacles
  • Termination

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If you face any of these behaviors or other ones not mentioned, that creates a hostile work environment for you, talk to an employment lawyer to consider your options. NY courts often decide on cases like yours. To give you an idea and encourage you, in Bragdon v. Abbott the court has decided that even HIV counts as a disability. If you really were harassed due to a disability in the workplace, you have legal options.

Examples of Sexual Orientation Harassment

Sexual orientation harassment has had a place in our history, but only most recently with the help of the #metoo movement, people are turning to the courts for help. In a recent case, Chavez v. Credit Nation Auto Sales LLC, the court protected a transgender person from being fired. In Koren v. Ohio Bell Tel. Co. the court protected an employee who has been fired based on his sexual orientation.

In Cental v. Potter, the court, among others, stated: “Sexual orientation harassment is often, if not always, motivated by a desire to enforce heterosexually defined gender norms. In fact, stereotypes about homosexuality are directly related to our stereotype about the proper roles of men and women.”

Most often, examples of sexual orientation harassment may include cruel jokes, comments, and teasing, all of which are targeting sexual orientation of employees.

Examples of Age-Based Harassment

A person facing age-based harassment at work may be facing:

  • Teasing or insulting, whether due to being “too young” or “too old” for something
  • Isolation from coworkers of different age
  • Unfairly critics based on age stereotypes
  • Promotion or pay raise obstacles
  • Termination

Sometimes this kind of harassment aims to push someone into early retirement. In other cases, it causes discouragement and low self-esteem for young workers.

In Meritor Sav. Bank v. Vinson the US Supreme Court has stated that employment laws “afford employees the right to work in an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult” on the basis of age. Age-based harassment and discrimination are not tolerated, so don’t hesitate to fight when you face them.

Personal Harassment Examples

Personal harassment examples may include any kind of harassment at the workplace that results in a hostile work environment. Most often it is personal bullying demonstrated through:

  • Inappropriate comments
  • Offensive jokes
  • Personal humiliation
  • Critical remarks
  • Ostracizing behaviors
  • Intimidation tactics
  • Any other behavior that creates an intimidating and offensive work environment for the victim.
  • Promotion or pay raise obstacles
  • Termination

US courts have recognized the concept of bullying already in Stanley Black & Decker Inc. v. Krug case, so if you feel distressed due to personal harassment, you may want to consider your options.

Examples of Physical Harassment in the Workplace

The examples of physical harassment in the workplace involve:

  • Direct threats of intent to inflict harm
  • Physical attacks, including hitting, shoving, kicking
  • Threatening behavior, such as shaking fists angrily
  • Destroying property to intimidate another person
  • Or any other action that creates a physical threat
  • Promotion or pay raise obstacles
  • Termination

Physical harassment is not as common as decades ago, but it still happens. We are far from the times when physical violence had been the norm for solving problems, but some people still use it. If you are being physically harassed, please call the police and a physical harassment in the workplace attorney.

Power Harassment

This type of abuse is not as visible and identifiable as other forms. The power harassment definition is very close to the one for bullying. It is a type of abuse where the person in the position of authority exercises power over subordinates.

The most common examples include:

  • The boss has demands that are impossible to meet
  • The demands by the employee are beyond their capabilities
  • The boss intrudes into the employee’s personal life

hostile work environment examples

In all these cases, the boss, the supervisor, or another person abuses their authority to exert power over a subordinate. As a result, the subordinate feels harassed and uncomfortable at the workplace.

Power harassment cases are usually dealt with by courts as harassment based on sex, race, religion, or something else. However, even if these harassment bases are not involved in your case, don’t hesitate to seek legal advice to address your personal concerns.

Examples of Psychological Harassment at Work

If you think that you may have been psychologically mistreated at work, consider the following examples of psychological harassment in the workplace as guidance:

  • Isolating the employee
  • Denying or downgrading everything the employee says
  • Discrediting the employee
  • Spreading rumors and gossips about the employee
  • Belittling or trivializing their thoughts

The list of examples of psychological harassment at work may be endless. There are many ways in which people can abuse each other verbally. As long as that behavior leads to a hostile work environment, it should be stopped by bringing it to your employers attention.

Examples of Cyberbullying

There are many real-life examples of cyberbullying. Any harassment that happens online and produces an abusive work environment is considered to be cyberbullying. Some common examples include:

  • Spreading gossip and lies for someone on social media
  • Sharing humiliating things for a worker
  • Sharing private stuff for a worker online
  • Sending harassing online messages directly to the victim
  • Humiliating or verbally abusing an employee on group chats

Online tools allow bullies to hide behind the keyboard and the screen, but in general, they do the same things that we have discussed already. Remember that any abusive behavior that has occurred via the internet is cyberbullying.

Examples of Retaliation

Some examples of retaliation in the workplace by the employer, supervisor or someone else include harassing a person who has taken an action against another person in order to get revenge. It may look like this:

  • Employee A files a complaint against employee B
  • Employee B finds out about that complaint
  • Employee B harasses employee A in order to get revenge and make her not file a complaint again.

Retaliation harassment is often overlooked. It is subtle but creates a lot of fear making the harassed employee not take any action against the abuser.

In most cases, employees are afraid of losing their jobs when considering to bring an action for illegal retaliation. That may happen if you don’t take any action, but if you do and you have an employment lawyer on your side to advise you, chances are that the abuser will think twice before doing anything that could be used against them in court.

Examples of Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

The Latin expression may have left you wondering what is an example of quid pro quo sexual harassment, but it is likely that you know some example already. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is when a person in the position of authority requires a romantic or sexual service in exchange for some work-related benefits. Such benefits may include:

  • Receiving a job offer
  • Receiving a promotion
  • Receiving a raise
  • Getting access to opportunities to improve, travel, or other benefits
  • Avoiding demotion
  • Avoiding termination

This type of abuse can be explicit, where the authority clearly expresses his or her demand for the services, or implicit, where the victim “should have realized” what they meant.

hostile work environment examples

If you take action against someone and take them to court, you should know that you won’t be the first one. NYC Courts often deal with sexual harassment cases, including quid pro quo harassment.

One case of important involved an employee who quit her job due to sexual harassment by a mid-level manager. Before leaving her job, the manager denied her job benefits, implicitly letting her know that she could have them if she provided sexual services. The court acknowledged that it created a hostile work environment and held the employer liable for that. So, if you are in a similar situation, don’t wait to speak with a Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment attorney.

Third Party Harassment

When employees come in contact with customers who harass them sexually, the employer is liable for failing to protect them. In general, employers are not liable, but the failure to address the issue may be a basis for their liability.

Third party harassment victims are usually young adults who work on “low-status” jobs, such as cashiers, waters, sales associates, or others. Being at the bottom of the company hierarchy and inexperienced, it is clear why they avoid making scenes.

Third party harassment behavior may include:

  • Sexual comments, jokes, or questions
  • Making sexual gestures
  • Inappropriate touching
  • Invading personal space
  • Any other sexually-harassing behavior

However, you should at least inform your employee about the issue and ask them to take measures for eliminating such events. If they don’t do so, consider legal action.

Examples of Verbal Harassment in the Workplace

A lot of verbal harassment goes unnoticed and unpunished. Many employees don’t know that they have been verbally abused. Examples of verbal harassment at work can be:

  • Passive-aggressive behavior aimed to hurt an employee
  • Gossiping about an employee and sharing details of their personal life
  • Calling employees derogatory names

But unlike the discriminatory type of abuse, verbal harassment is often not illegal. The law and courts do not decide on relationships between people, but if someone at work is continuously unpleasant and make you want to quit your job, then you may be a victim of corporate bullying which isn’t actionable in the court of law.

FAQ - Hostile Work Environment Examples

What constitutes a hostile work environment?

A wide range of behaviors can set the tone for a hostile work environment. All these behaviors define it as “unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated in their place of employment”.

What behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment?

In general, there are three criteria for a hostile work environment:

  • The behavior is discriminatory against gender, race, religion, age, orientation, disability or nation of origin – categories protected by the Equal Opportunity Commission.
  • A reasonable person would find the work environment hostile or abusive.
  • The conduct has become a pervasive and long-lasting problem
This is not an exhaustive list, however. Other behaviors that make a person feel scared or intimidated at work can be considered as abusive behavior. To ensure that your case is viable, talk to an experienced employment lawyer.

What determines a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment has two elements: 1) a superior or coworker who take certain actions that could be abusive and 2) an employee who feels uncomfortable or scared to be in his or her workspace due to such behaviors. To determine whether a work environment is hostile, EEOC investigators look at the multiple factors, including lack of diversity at the workplace, the number of young workers, the status of executives or senior managers, compensation tied to customer satisfaction, and others.

Can I sue my employer for unfair treatment?

Yes, you can sue your employer, but it doesn’t mean that you will necessarily win the case. As long as your employer violated your employment contract or specific law, it is reasonable to expect that you can be successful.

What is proof of a hostile work environment?

You’ll prove a hostile work environment if you provide proof that:

  • you were harassed because of a protected characteristic
  • the harassment was so pervasive or severe as to create an abusive work environment.
If you wonder how to prove the hostile work environment, it is best to talk to a lawyer.

Can you get fired for reporting harassment?

It is prohibited to be fired for reporting harassment, but it doesn’t mean that your employer will not break the law by terminating your employment. You can increase your chances of staying at work and to prevent a retaliation action by your employer by first reporting any harassment to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). The EEOC hostile work environment examples show that employers avoid firing employees in such cases.

Can I sue my employer for creating a hostile work environment?

Yes, you can. But to win, you have to prove that you were subjected to abusive behavior and it was so severe or pervasive that it affected the terms and conditions of your employment.

Can you be fired for creating a hostile work environment?

Yes, if you create a hostile work environment, you can be fired for that. However, the termination of the contract must not occur as a result of illegal discrimination based on a protected characteristic such as age, disability, gender, national origin, race, etc.

BONUS – Hostile Work Environment Complaint Letter

When you think that you are a victim of a hostile work environment, it is best to first report it to your employer and then to the EEOC.

When reporting a hostile work environment to your employer you should send an official hostile workplace complaint letter to your employer.

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When you write the letter, you need to include important facts about your case. If you skip consulting a lawyer and you don’t know how to write it, you may want to see an example of a hostile work environment letter. Here is a template you can use to ensure that you are on the right track.

Dear ___________,
As my employer of 14 years, you must understand how much it pains me to write you this letter today. However, I feel that I cannot remain silent any longer. Our work environment in the shipping department of Anytown Department Store has become extremely hostile, and I must ask that measures be taken to remedy this situation.
The problem first became apparent to me three months ago, which was when the first major incident occurred. The new shipping manager, Mr. Brown, called me into his office to tell me that I had sent a package to the wrong address. I politely apologized, but he continued to yell at me for over half an hour until I was crying. I was embarrassed in front of the entire shipping staff.
Hostile events continued over the next few weeks, with Mr. Brown yelling at employees, throwing papers, and threatening to fire us on a regular basis. He is particularly cruel to me, often calling me names and standing over my shoulder. This makes all the employees uncomfortable, and I believe both productivity and morale are down.
I have stepped forward on behalf of the employees of the shipping department because I am the most senior employee, but other members of the department will attest to Mr. Brown’s terrible behavior as well. We cannot work like this for much longer.
I respectfully request that Mr. Brown be held accountable for his actions. He makes employees feel uncomfortable and actually interferes with our ability to work. In the very least, mediation is necessary.
I would appreciate discretion in this matter, as I still must work under Mr. Brown. However, please do contact me at your earliest convenience at 555-555-5555. I look forward to hearing your proposal for solving this problem.

How to Deal with a Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment lawyer at the Law Office of Yuriy Moshes can help you navigate the rough waters. Don’t go through this alone because it’s never easy.

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We know that it is very hard to speak, but we also know that it is hard to fight against an employer. We work in the greater New York City area including all the boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island), as well as Northern New Jersey, Long Island, and Upstate New York.

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