As a lawyer, a mediator, a workplace investigator, and a blogger, I’ve seen my fair share of employees claiming that someone(s) subjected them to a “hostile work environment.”
But here’s the thing.
Unless the behavior about which the individual complains is based on that person’s protected class, the law won’t recognize it as a hostile work environment.
For example, I was reading this decision last night from a federal judge in Maryland. The pro se plaintiff claimed that her former employer had created a hostile work environment for her based on her race (African American).
- The plaintiff’s supervisor allegedly got angry with her for failing a board exam.
- The plaintiff also claimed that the supervisor called the plaintiff “stupid” for misinterpreting a workplace policy.
- The supervisor also denied one of the plaintiff’s vacation requests while granting similar requests to her coworkers.
- One of the plaintiff’s coworkers threw papers in her face because the plaintiff was late to relieve her.
Do these events reflect some form of hostility? With the exception of number 3, yes, they do.
But conjecture aside, what do they have to do with the plaintiff’s race? That was the plaintiff’s downfall according to the court.
“The common denominator between these incidents is that the plaintiff provides no evidence beyond her speculations, that any of the actions she claims contributed to a hostile work environment were motivated by racial animus. She relies entirely on her own general statements to conclude these incidents were motivated by race.” (cleaned up).
There’s another problem with this hostile work environment claim that has nothing to do with race. That is, the behavior must be sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to alter her working conditions. Here, the acts I’ve listed above — even when taken together — don’t satisfy this requirement. As the court noted, “Occasional acts of frustration or anger, such as snatching papers from an employee’s hands, pointing, or banging on a table are, at least to some extent, part of the ordinary tribulations of many workplaces.”
So, the defendant prevailed.
These types of behaviors aren’t appropriate for the workplace. But ultimately, they aren’t unlawful either.