Working for the federal government can be demanding and challenging, but it should not be discriminatory or hostile.
If you are a federal employee who is suffering in a hostile work environment, take comfort in knowing that you have several legal protections against workplace misconduct.
You can also have a strong and effective advocate from the Federal Employment Law Firm of Aaron D. Wersing.
Our experienced federal employment attorneys are dedicated to helping federal employees navigate the complex legal systems that grant compensation and relief for workplace disputes.
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
Not every uncomfortable workplace is illegally hostile. An unlawfully hostile work environment is the result of workplace discrimination defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).
To hold your employer liable for fostering or condoning a hostile work environment, you must clear several legal hurdles.
These hurdles include proving the presence of unwanted behavior that is discriminatory and severe or pervasive.
A Hostile Work Environment Is Unwelcome
The crux of maintaining a successful hostile work environment case is proving that the harassing behavior you endured was unwanted.
When you are confronted with harassment, you should immediately tell your harasser to stop or complain to a supervisor or human resources about the conduct.
A Hostile Work Environment Is Discriminatory
You must prove that whatever hostile behavior you endured was discrimination that targeted a protected characteristic.
The Title VII protected characteristics are:
- Age (40 and older),
- Religion, and
Among the many forms of discrimination, sexual harassment is a topic of concern that comes up often in this country, and it is a broader form of misconduct than the media portrays.
Please remember that sexual harassment does not have to be motivated by sexual desire to be illegal. Sexual harassment just has to be based on someone’s sex or gender.
A Hostile Work Environment Consists of Extreme or Persistent Actions
What kinds of actions create hostile workplaces? The possibilities are endless. Someone in your workplace can commit this type of harassment through:
- Offensive jokes,
- Displays of offensive images,
- Non-consensual touching,
- Graphic physical gestures,
- Invasions of personal space,
- Generalizations about individuals with the same protected characteristics,
- Insults based on protected characteristics,
- Unwanted, romantic advances, and
- Comments about body parts or physical appearance.
A coworker, supervisor, or nonemployee in your office might make a passing joke or statement about someone’s protected characteristic, but not every incident like this rises to the level of unlawful discrimination.
To claim that harassment at your job created a hostile environment, you must prove that the harassment was extreme or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would call your workplace abusive.
Extreme discriminatory actions
If there was only one instance of discriminatory harassment in your workplace, you must show the legal authorities that the one instance was extreme enough to be abusive on its own.
Examples of this type of extreme behavior can include touching without permission and the use of offensive slurs.
If a single occurrence of discrimination isn’t extreme, you need to show the authorities that there was a pattern of discrimination in your workplace.
That pattern might be daily jokes about race or sex or the exclusion of members from one protected class whenever there is a social work function.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII, and it looks at the entire record when concluding whether harassment created a hostile environment.
When you sense harassment, collect as much evidence as you can, and your attorney can show the courts and authorities why the behavior at your workplace was unlawful.
What Is an Example of a Hostile Work Environment?
We know it can be difficult to speak out against mistreatment in your workplace. But sometimes, taking a stand is easier when you have examples of a hostile work environment to remind you of what you don’t have to endure. Let’s take a look at the two scenarios below.
Example Number One
Pervasive harassment that creates hostility can come from insults or perceived “compliments” about someone’s protected characteristics.
For instance, imagine you are a member of a racial group that is stereotyped as being gifted in math. Balancing the budget is one of your many job functions, as well as data analysis and copy editing.
During several work meetings, coworkers who have the same job as you joke that they should just give you all the budget work because “your people are good at that.”
Your coworkers also consistently forward you work assignment emails regarding their budget projects and include joking messages that say, “I know you want to handle this—you have the genes for it.”
Even if your coworkers think they are somehow attributing good qualities to you, this type of behavior can quickly make an individual feel targeted and unsafe in their work environment.
If someone constantly makes comments (bad or “good”) about characteristics they associate with one of your protected characteristics, they are likely creating a hostile work environment.
Example Number Two
Workplace hostility can also come from non-verbal conduct. Activities like making offensive gestures, regularly entering a coworker’s personal space, following a coworker around, or touching a coworker without permission can be forms of unlawful harassment.
If, for example, you repeatedly have to tell a colleague not to stand only an inch behind you and other employees of the same sex while you are making copies, you could have a right to file a sexual harassment claim.
Your claim could be valid regardless of whether your harasser was of the opposite sex or motivated by desire.
There are myriad ways your workplace can become hostile. If there is any hint of discrimination in your office or at your worksite, speak to an attorney immediately about how to respond.
Employers are liable for hostile working environments when the following conditions are present:
- The employer had control over the harasser;
- The employer knew or should have known about the harassment;
- The employer failed to prevent or correct the harassment; and
- You did not unreasonably fail to use employer resources to prevent or correct the harassment.
Do all that you reasonably can to follow your employer’s harassment complaint procedures and submit a written harassment report to your employer.
If your employer’s point of contact for your complaint is your harasser, submit a written complaint to a trusted supervisor or human resources.
And if the circumstances of the harassment make filing a complaint with management futile, speak to an attorney as soon as possible about your options.
Taking Legal Action
Whether you want to sue your employer or harasser or initiate government action against them, you must start by filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC.
A federal employee initiates an EEOC charge by contacting the EEO Counselor at the office responsible for complaints against the agency that employs them.
Your employer should have a poster that tells you which office to call when you have an EEOC complaint.
As a federal employee, you must act quickly after suffering harassment because you have only 45 days to complain to your EEO Counselor.
Your counselor will attempt to settle your complaint through alternative dispute resolution (ADR) or counseling.
If counseling and ADR do not end your dispute, you can file a formal complaint. You must file your formal complaint within 15 days of receiving notice from your EEO Counselor about how to complain.
Once you begin the complaint process with the EEOC, there are many deadlines you must meet to exercise and preserve your rights.
It is best to hire an experienced federal employment attorney to handle this process for you so you can make the most of your legal options.
In successful hostile work environment cases, harmed employees can win:
- Back pay,
- Compensation for financial losses,
- Policy changes at work,
- Work benefits (including job reinstatement, transfer, or promotion),
- Compensation for emotional distress, and
- Punitive damages.
You deserve to be made whole after encountering unlawful harassment, and a skilled attorney can maximize your legal recovery.
Speak to a Federal Employment Attorney
At the Federal Employment Law Firm of Aaron D. Wersing, we focus on helping federal employees hold their employers accountable.
We understand that you have unique rights and challenges at work, and we have helped hundreds of federal employees receive the benefits and relief they deserve.
Our firm not only successfully advocates for federal employees, but we also make sure that our clients understand their options and our strategies at every stage of the legal process.
Please contact us if you need help. You can reach us online or call us at 866-298-1244 for a free consultation.