What do you think? Is this a hostile work environment? (Spoiler alert: no.)


Some jobs stink. But that doesn’t make the office a “hostile work environment.”

For example, last night, I read about a manager whose employer transferred her to a unit facing a backlog of 12,000 cases. Following the transfer, the manager claimed she endured “constant negative treatment,” was the only one working in a cubicle at her pay and scale, and did not appear in the unit’s management directory until months after she joined the group.

To make matters worse, the manager allegedly received “harassing emails” from colleagues that “undermined her authority and amounted to harassment because the senders could have talked to her in person.” For example, an employee emailed her a request and copied some of her staff. Meanwhile, another manager allegedly “bombard[ed]” her with emails about her progress on her cases.” In addition to this heavy workload, the manager lamented that her supervisors failed to recognize her accomplishments.

In 2019, the manager received a “3” out of “5” on her performance review, the lowest of her career. The following year, she received an “optional performance discussion,” which evolved into weekly workload meetings, which the manager believed were accusatory, negative, and harassing.

The manager thought this behavior created a “hostile work environment.”

As a matter of law, however, an employer creates a hostile work environment when “the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” The bar to establish such a claim is high. Among other things, a plaintiff must show the work environment was both subjectively and objectively offensive. Plus, the conduct must be severe or pervasive. Physical threats are one thing; a mere offensive utterance is something else.

Ultimately, what matters is whether the conduct became so severe or pervasive that “a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive.”

So, what do you think? Did this manager endure a hostile work environment?

According to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals — the folks with gavels and black robes — not even close:

Nearly all [the plaintiff’s] complaints relate to one-time, everyday work disagreements that took place over several years—and none of her complaints, considered in combination, were so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of her environment. …Insults, personal animosity, and juvenile behavior are insufficient evidence of a hostile work environment unless they are so pervasive or severe as to interfere with an employee’s work performance. And having supervisors who are ‘short tempered,’ ‘hostile,’ unfairly critical, and ‘disrespectful,’ does not amount to ‘objectively offensive, severe, or pervasive” conduct.

(I cleaned that quote up a bit.)

The plaintiff’s colleagues and managers wanted her to do her job. That’s not unlawful, let alone based on her membership in a protected class (e.g., race, age, etc.) or anywhere close to fostering a hostile work environment.

Next time, instead of filing a lawsuit, consider finding another job.

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