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  • Writer's pictureDavid Manes

6 Hostile Work Environment Examples

Hostile work environment examples are not hard to find, especially with recent events documented in Hollywood about certain sexual harassment cases. But sometimes, it can be difficult to understand what makes a hostile work environment different than a sexual harassment claim. They’re very similar.

In most situations, sexual harassment is often part of a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment is defined by being a place where work becomes difficult or uncomfortable due to the harassment in the workplace.

Hostile work environments can be caused by offensive or intimidating behavior that makes employees feel unsafe or scared.

Who Causes Hostile Work Environment?

People. Actions. Words. Any person in the work environment can negatively influence the working community. It can be a manager, a co-worker, a customer, a contractor. Any unwelcome conduct from another person causes the work environment to become hostile.

Quick List: Hostile Environment Behaviors

  1. Sexual activity discussion

  2. Physical comments

  3. Offensive jokes about sex, race, disability

  4. Sexually suggestive pictures

  5. Unneeded touching

  6. Demeaning terms

  7. Rude gestures

  8. Inappropriate language

  9. Work sabotage

  10. Threatening behavior

When Does Hostile Work Environment Violate the Law?

Unlawful hostile work environment must be claimed by someone who is a part of a legally protected status. Once you know that you are a legally protected due to your protected class, the conduct must be defined as pervasive and abusive against you. Lawyers seek to show that the average reasonable human being would find the conduct hostile and abusive.

The situation will be further analyzed based on certain criteria.

  1. Frequency

  2. Severity

  3. Physically Threatening

  4. Work performance interference

  5. Psychological effect

  6. Harasser’s position

Determining whether or not a situation is hostile work environment can be challenging since the above data is not always required. Situations are judged case by case. Every employment environment is different and is judged differently.

6 Hostile Work Environment Examples

To help you recognize hostile work environment situations, it can be helpful to explore situations that were deemed hostile work environment. Remember that these are just examples. An employment lawyer will be best equipped to determine if your work situation is a hostile work environment claim.

Forced Touch and Inappropriate Speech

Courts must decide if the behavior is severe enough to be considered hostile work environment. In some cases, just intense teasing can be considered offensive but not enough to trigger the protections from a hostile work environment claim. However, when things go from offensive comments to physical touch, the court recognizes this behavior as hostile.

Alice’s coworker shared about how a coworker routinely came up behind her and unhooked her bra. One time in a back hallway, he grabbed her face and forced her to kiss him. Alice pushed him away and told him not to touch her. Then, she overheard him tell a customer that he wanted to perform oral sex on her.

Not Quite Hostile Work Environment

Although some situations might be really uncomfortable, they probably don’t meet the high standard that courts dub hostile work environment. Hostile work environment must be severe and prevalent. When trying to determine if your situation fits a hostile work environment, consult an employment lawyer.

Rilla filed a claim of hostile work environment because her coworker, Eric, often poured out his relationship woes to her. During these conversations, he would touch her elbow. Sometimes, he called her at home to complain about his failed romantic relationships.

Overtly Sexual Harassment

In court, overtly sexual behavior can make the difference between a claim that’s dismissed and one that is not. The behavior must be strung together and not just isolated incidents. An employment lawyer can help you determine if your situation could be considered hostile work environment.

Shannon’s coworker began to make comments about her sexiness and what he would do to her while alone with her. He then asked her out on a date. She refused him and complained to HR. That coworker stopped talking to her, but he would stare at her for long lengths of time throughout the work day for nearly a year.

Violent Sexual Touching

Sexual touching usually ends up being termed hostile work environment, especially when the touching happens often. While most consider sexual harassment to only happen to women, men can suffer sexual harassment as well.

Kevin reported that a female coworker hit him in the genitals and filed a claim. It turned out that the woman had been known to hit other male employees in the genitals. She only ever hit men. This happened enough to be considered pervasive.

No Touching but Constant Notes

Violent touching makes for a clear argument for harassment, but it’s not always necessary to prove inappropriate behavior. When conduct is pervasive, that can be enough. Moreover, if an employer fails to protect the employee appropriately, the employee may have a case.

Ken started at a new job, and Ellen immediately started flirting. Ken told her he was married happily. That’s when the notes began—Ellen sent emails and left sticky notes on his desk. Ken asked her to stop and complained to HR. HR promised to handle it. The notes continued. When Ellen showed up at his daughter’s ballet recital, Ken worried about the safety of his family, but he was afraid to report the problem due to Ellen’s years at the company.

Not Sexual Hostile Work Environment

Hostile work environment can be claimed for other types of treatment such as race or disability discrimination. Racial slurs or over-the-top mocking for another’s ethnicity or disability is against the law. When a constant work situation causes an employee to struggle to work, this may be hostile work environment.

Aaron accepted a job with an up and coming company. Soon after starting, he noticed that he was the only non-white employee. Coworkers left him out of work events, and one went so far as to speak slowly to him as if Aaron couldn’t understand English. Aaron mentioned what he observed to his boss, and his boss told Aaron that it was in his head. During meetings, coworkers asked Aaron what “his people” would think of certain things, and he started to receive threatening emails.

When an employee faces a hostile work environment, it can be hard to determine whether or not the situation meets the criteria for a hostile work environment claim. An employment lawyer can help you decide on your legal options.

Chat with an employment attorney: (412) 626-5626 or

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