When Can I Sue for Hostile Work Environment?

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

If your employer regularly shouts at you, belittles you, or treats you unfairly, you might be experiencing a hostile work environment. Under the law, creating a hostile work environment is a type of workplace harassment.

Learn when you can sue for a hostile work environment, and what you need to prove to win your case.

When Can you Sue for a Hostile Work Environment?

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.

In addition, the employer must have been aware of the conduct but failed to take appropriate action to address it.

You must also prove that the harassment was based on a protected characteristic, such as your race or gender. This is where many legal claims fall short.

Examples of a Hostile Work Environment

Here are a few examples of conduct that would likely create a hostile work environment:

  • repeatedly making offensive comments about an employee's race, gender, or religion
  • engaging in unwanted physical contact, such as touching, caressing, or grabbing an employee without their consent, and
  • pressuring an employee into performing certain tasks or actions, such as making sexual advances in exchange for a promotion.

How to File a Lawsuit for Hostile Work Environment

Before you can file a lawsuit for harassment under a hostile work environment theory, you need to file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). (Under federal law, harassment is a type of discrimination.) Alternatively, you can file a similar charge with your equivalent state agency.

The EEOC (or state agency) will either investigate your charge, or (more likely) issue you a right-to-sue letter that allows you to file a lawsuit in court. Once you've received that letter, you have a limited amount of time to bring your claim—how long depends on state law.

It's a good idea to hire an employment attorney to represent you. A lawyer will understand how best to present your case and will ensure that all legal deadlines are met.

Harassment Based on Protected Characteristics

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 marital status and veteran status.

If your boss has been singling out only women or Latinos for the screaming treatment, that might constitute harassment. However, a boss who yells at everyonewhat 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.

How to Respond to Bullying at Work

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.

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