MISSOURI HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT
Introduction to Hostile Work Environment Law
- This is a very complex and legally sensitive topic — See a lawyer for an analysis of whether you can extract some legal tactics from the situation, and/or to design a plan of attack to try to stop the hostile environment.
- There is no law that mandates that the employer be courteous and decent. But there are laws that forbid certain kinds of mistreatment under certain circumstances.
- The employer’s “hostile” conduct toward you can be relevant and useful in court if you find yourself in a legal dispute on some legal theory, even if your case is not, officially, a “hostile environment” case.
- To determine if you have an official “hostile environment” case, lawyers look primarily at the law of Discrimination or Wrongful Termination or Retaliation or even Contract law.
- When the employer creates or tolerates a “hostile environment” directed at you, the employer might be trying to force you to quit. Beware. Please read my article about Constructive Discharge before you resign, and consider seeing a lawyer.
- Lawyers can often help you resolve hostile environment problems efficiently. Consider calling a lawyer right away.
- Caution: As with almost everything on this website, this article focuses on the rights of private employees. Once again, if you work for the government then please read my article about Government Employees.
Main categories of law that lawyers look at
when you say you work in a “hostile environment”
DISCRIMINATORY HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
This is when managers or co-workers are engaging in offensive conduct toward you that focuses on the traditional protected categories of sex or gender, pregnancy, age, disability, religion, race, or national origin.
For example, offensive conduct is occurring in the workplace and the conduct has an element of sexual harassment to it (touching, crude sexual jokes or comments, or otherwise offensive gender-related comments). If the comments or conduct focus on “pregnancy” or “age” or “disability” or “religion” or “race” or “national origin,” then this is still a discriminatory hostile environment situation. These types of hostile environments are prohibited by the discrimination laws. See my article on Discrimination for more information.
Examples of a discriminatory hostile work environment
- Someone is making discriminatory comments, or engaging in any form of conduct, which is offensive based on sex or gender, pregnancy, age, disability, religion, race, or national origin. The most common is probably racial or sexual harassment.
- In a sexually hostile environment, you might have been grabbed or touched in sensitive private areas, or someone keeps rubbing up against you or touching you, or someone has threatened your job if you will not have relations with them, or someone is making offensive sexual comments to you or about you or in your presence.
- In a hostile environment based on race or age or disability or religion or national origin, you might be subjected to slurs and insults and offensive jokes and comments.
- Special problem: Sometimes in a particular work environment, minorities or women are simply treated worse than whites or men. This may or may not be a “hostile environment,” but it IS a form of “employment discrimination.” See my article about Discrimination and consider making a charge with the EEOC or MCHR.
RETALIATION HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
Any form of bad conduct toward you is suspicious if the employer has a motive to retaliate. If you engaged in any form of protected activity such as I describe in my Retaliation article, and if the employer wants to retaliate against you, he might create a hostile environment that does not contain crude sexual or racial comments, etc, but instead is simply generic rudeness or disrespect or unfairness of any sort whatever.
Examples of a retaliation hostile work environment
- Any form of unfairness or bad treatment directed at you can qualify as an example.
- It helps make your proof easier if someone has made direct comments about the “protected activity” you engaged in, as I talk about in my Retaliation article.
“CONSTRUCTIVE DISCHARGE” HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
Any form of bad conduct toward you is suspicious if the employer is trying to make you quit. The employer might be trying to force you to quit for any number of reasons that might give you legal rights. See my article about this problem, Constructive Discharge (being forced to quit). Also see my article about Wrongful Termination for an introduction to the kinds of things that might motivate an employer to try to force you to quit. There are many possible motivations, such as Retaliation, or preventing the vesting of an ERISA benefit such as medical or pension benefits, etc.
Examples of a “constructive discharge” hostile work environment
- Any form of unfairness or bad treatment directed at you can qualify as an example.
CONTRACT-RELATED HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
Any form of bad conduct toward you is suspicious if you have an oral or written Contract of some sort, including a Non-Compete Agreement. The employer might be trying to gain an advantage in an anticipated legal dispute with you. For one example, he might want to let you go but he does not want to pay out your contract, so he attempts to build a file against you to show that you deserved to be fired, or he tries to get you to resign. Either way, his goal is to weaken your ability to enforce your contract, or weaken your defenses against the non-compete. It gets very complicated.
Examples of a contract-related hostile work environment
- Any form of unfairness or bad treatment directed at you can qualify as an example
THE TYPES CAN OVERLAP, AND OFTEN DO
It is common that a person might be suffering from a discriminatory hostile environment, in retaliation for something, and they may also have a contract or non-compete, and the employer is really trying to force them to quit. These situations get very complicated very fast. Consider talking to a lawyer at the earliest opportunity.
WHAT IF NONE OF THE ABOVE SEEM TO APPLY TO YOU?
Let a lawyer figure out whether you have any strong legal rights. Lawyers know more law than you do - maybe something is going on that the lawyer recognizes but you won’t recognize. There are many twists and turns in the law that a lawyer knows about that you don’t. Consult with a lawyer of your choosing.
I get all kinds of calls complaining about a “hostile work environment.”
Many people are thoroughly upset at how rude their supervisors or co-workers are to them, how they are belittled in front of others and made to feel stupid, how they are cussed at. I then ask the callers a few questions, and I often quickly determine that the “hostile environment” is not of a type that the law can help with. If the hostile environment is a generally bad working environment, where most people are treated rudely by mean co-workers and bosses, then there may not be anything the law can do to help you. There are no employment laws that mandate that people be respectful and polite to each other.
The KEY: Lawyers try to determine whether the hostile environment is being directed at particular people, and why it is being directed at those particular people. That’s where strong legal rights are most likely to reside.
No matter what the nature of the hostile environment, if you have a Contract of some sort, you should probably talk to a lawyer without further delay. People with contracts can take action under contract-related law even if the hostile environment is not a form of illegal Retaliation or Discrimination.
What could you do if you are working in a “hostile environment”?
CONSIDER CONSULTING WITH A LAWYER RIGHT AWAY - Of course the law does not require that you consult with a lawyer, but there are certain distinct advantages to doing so in the “hostile environment” context. Depending on your circumstances, the lawyer might be able to design a strategy that gets you the result you want. If you start taking action on your own, without getting legal advice, you run a much higher risk of doing or saying something that messes up your potential case. Depending on the circumstances, the lawyer might be able to stage-manage a resolution that pleases you. Sometimes the lawyer is able to resolve things relatively quickly.
IF YOU DECIDE TO ACT ON YOUR OWN, AND IF YOU ARE STILL WORKING THERE, USUALLY YOU SHOULD COMPLAIN TO THE EMPLOYER - Most of the time, people become aware of the “hostile environment” based on a few isolated incidents of objectionable conduct or comments. Generally speaking, if only a few isolated incidents have occurred, and if those incidents are not too severe, the law wants you to make a proper and effective Complaint about unfair treatment, and give the employer a reasonable chance to fix the problem. Then, if the problem continues, your rights get stronger. At some point you really should see a lawyer.
YOU CAN FILE EEOC OR MCHR CHARGES EVEN IF YOU ARE STILL WORKING THERE - You have the right to file charges of Discrimination if the hostile environment was based on sex or gender, pregnancy, age, disability, religion, race, or national origin. For many forms of Retaliation the EEOC or MCHR will take your charge. Please consider filing such a charge, especially if you complained to the employer first and the hostile environment has continued. See my Complaints article for some tips and traps in the complaint process.
YOU MIGHT HAVE THE RIGHT TO FILE CHARGES WITH OTHER AGENCIES - It all depends on the reason that the hostile environment is occurring. For example, if the hostile environment is Retaliation for making an OSHA report about unsafe working conditions, then OSHA might take your complaint about the retaliation as well. If your problem arose from an ERISA-qualified workplace benefit, such as a medical or pension benefit plan, the Department of Labor might take your complaint about discrimination or retaliation arising from your benefit-related problem. Also, some of the Whistleblower laws provide detailed complaint procedures for retaliation.
GOVERNMENT WORKERS - Please see my article about Government employees, because many things are different when you work for the government, including whom you complain to, and your deadlines are often ridiculously short.
GET YOUR CONTRACT LOOKED AT BY A LAWYER - No matter what the nature of the hostile environment, if you have a Contract of some sort, you should probably talk to a lawyer without further delay. People with contracts can take action under contract-related law even if the hostile environment is not a form of illegal Retaliation or Discrimination.
BEFORE YOU QUIT YOUR JOB
WARNING - Please understand that if you quit your job you are throwing down the gauntlet, legally speaking, in a manner that will greatly affect your developing legal claim, and could even destroy your claim. Please see my article on Constructive Discharge (when you are being mistreated and might feel like quitting).
Consider consulting with a lawyer. Let the lawyer help you decide what to do next.
Consider complaining to the employer’s Human Resources Department or a special manager designated by the employer to receive complaints about working conditions. See my Complaints article for some tips and traps to watch out for in the complaint process.
Watch out for the Stress
People sometimes do things under stress that harm their legal positions. Try not to be one of those people. It’s a challenge to handle the stress and depression that might flow from the Hostile Environment. For some further reading on job stress and depression, check out my article Mental Health - Stress and Depression and Job Problems.
Tim is a St. Louis Missouri employment lawyer and a member of the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA). Visit NELA.org and the Missouri Bar Website (see the directory of lawyers).