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Illinois Hostile Work Environment

Posted by Tamara

The term hostile work environment is often misused, causing confusing for Illinois employees.

Some people, especially as depicted in certain TV shows, think a hostile work environment exists any time an employer or coworker behaves badly. That is an incorrect assumption. Some people are obnoxious and ill-mannered, but they aren’t automatically violating federal laws.

The legal definition of a hostile work environment mandates two conditions.

  • The employee is being subjected to negative behavior in the workplace because of his or her age (40-70), sex, color, national origin, religion, disability, race or pregnancy.
  • The employer is aware of the negative behavior, but hasn’t taken steps to stop the behavior, or to prevent future occurrences.

Consider two scenarios:

  1. Arnetta works for a boss who micromanages, screams, throws papers and berates workers of every race, sex, religion and age. Arnetta asked her Human Resources professional if her boss’s behavior constitutes a hostile work environment.
  2. The general manager of a hotel constantly calls the Latino employees “dumb Mexicans” and “wetbacks”.

At first, both seem to be hostile work environments, but only one meets the legal definition: the scenario with the general manager and the Latino employees. The EEOC recently won a very similar case. The court found the employer guilty of creating a hostile work environment for the Latino employees.

Arnetta’s situation doesn’t meet the legal definition, because her boss yells at everyone. He certainly is a jerk and probably a bad manager, but his screaming doesn’t target a specific protected group.

Creating a hostile work environment is a form of discrimination, which violates federal laws. These laws are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC recently won a case involving an African American worker at a Pennsylvania bakery. The employee was repeatedly subjected to racial slurs from his coworkers. The worker complained to management, but the slurs continued. The suit determined the employer had created a hostile work environment for that employee.

In each of these EEOC cases, the employer paid over $1 million in damages.


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