My boss yells at me. Can I sue for hostile work environment?

Question:

I work in a call center for a software company. Our manager is a real jerk. He often yells at my coworkers and me, telling us to work faster or stop making mistakes in our tracking paperwork. If one of us gets up to go to the bathroom or take a break, he shouts that the company isn't paying us to goof off. Last week, he called us all into a meeting just to berate us for 20 minutes. His face was red and he was cursing, telling us that we had not made our numbers for the past month and that we had better get our lazy "behinds" in gear. I find it really stressful to go to work these days. Can my coworkers and I sue the company for hostile work environment harassment?

Answer:

Your work environment does sound quite hostile. Unfortunately for you, however, it doesn't sound like it meets the legal definition of workplace harassment.

To sue your employer for harassment under a hostile work environment theory, you must show that you were subjected to offensive, unwelcome conduct that was so severe or pervasive that it affected the terms and conditions of your employment. Getting yelled at all day long could be enough to meet this part of the test. However, you must also prove that the harassment was based on a protected characteristic, such as your race or gender. This is where your legal claim would fall short.

Legally speaking, harassment is a form of discrimination. It is illegal only if it is based on one of the characteristics protected by federal or state antidiscrimination laws. Under federal law, these characteristics include race, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, religion, disability, age (over 40), and genetic information. State law often protects additional traits, such as gender identity, marital status, and sexual orientation.

If your boss was singling out only women or Latinos for the screaming treatment, that might constitute harassment. However, a boss who yells at everyone -- what you might call an "equal opportunity harasser" -- is not discriminating against a particular group. Being a jerk isn't against the law. Inappropriate workplace behavior crosses the line into harassment only if it is based on a protected trait.

Of course, the fact that your boss's behavior might be legal doesn't mean it's appropriate. You might want to consider talking to your HR representative or a higher-level manager about your boss's conduct. If some of your coworkers are willing to join you in complaining, so much the better. The company may not know how oppressive your worksite has become, and it clearly has an interest in retaining its employees. You might find that the company is willing to step in and take action to tone things down.

Depending on your state, however, your employer may be violating wage and hours laws. In several states, employees are entitled to meal periods or rest breaks once they have worked a certain number of hours. To learn more, select your state on our wage and hour page.

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