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What is a ‘hostile work environment’?

Usually included among the accusations in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a person victimized at work is one saying the alleged harasser created a hostile work environment. What is a “hostile work environment,” exactly?

As readers who have never experienced sexual harassment can probably guess, there is a difference between being in a hostile work environment, and working at a place that makes you unhappy or stressed out. A general definition: a hostile work environment is one where the inappropriate behavior of your co-workers or managers targets you and interferes with your ability to do your job properly.

Possible signs that you are dealing with a hostile work environment include:

  • Name-calling
  • Inappropriate text messages, including “sexting” attempts
  • Inappropriate jokes
  • Offensive images displayed at work
  • A boss propositions you
  • The employer ignores evidence of harassment, or expects the victim to put up with it

The word “inappropriate” gets used a lot when discussing sexual harassment, just as we used it in the list above. This is a fairly conservative word that can describe some awful, despicable behavior, like making comments about a victim’s body or sex life, demanding sexual favors, forcing victims to look at pornography and so on.

Nobody should have to put up with this sort of toxic conduct at work. Victims have rights, including the right to sue if the employer won’t correct the offending workers. If the boss does not take a victim’s complaints seriously, perhaps a civil judgment will change his or her attitude toward sexual harassment.