What to Know

Hostile Work Environment - California Laws

Hostile Work Environment. We represent employees in Los Angeles and everywhere else in California.

If you believe you are a victim of hostile work environment, call us at 888-762-0297 to discuss your case. You have rights.

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We represent clients in the state of California.

Definition of hostile work environment

A hostile work environment is one in which harassment prevents a worker from doing their job or is so severe or pervasive that it amounts to abuse.

To be considered a hostile work environment, the perpetrator's conduct must meet the following legal requirements:

• The perpetrator engaged in discriminatory conduct, workplace bullying, or sexual harassment;

• The conduct created a hostile or abusive work environment;

• The perpetrator’s behavior offended, humiliated, or distressed the victim;

• The conduct can be described as "pervasive" or “severe” (it was not an isolated incident);

• The inappropriate behavior affected the victim's ability to perform their job or affected their emotional tranquility in the workplace; and

• The employer failed to correct or address the issue or knew about the hostile work environment but failed to take appropriate action to address the issue.

Examples of a hostile work environment

The perpetrator's conduct must be severe and pervasive to meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment. Common examples of behavior that may constitute a hostile work environment include:

• Using offensive or demeaning language

• Making derogatory comments, or generalizations related to a protected characteristic such as race or sex

• Using suggestive language

• Making unsolicited sexual advances

• Discussing sexual activities at work

• Telling sexually suggestive or inappropriate jokes

• Engaging in acts of unwelcome or inappropriate touching

• Using slurs

• Interfering with an employee’s job performance

• Sabotaging an employee's career

Federal laws

There is no federal law that would explicitly address a hostile work environment. Rather, there are several laws that prohibit hostile work environments, including:

•Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

• Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

• Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

• Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)

Under federal law, a hostile work environment can be created due to harassment, retaliation, or discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics, including race, sex, color, national origin, and religion.

California laws

California law recognizes three situations that may create a hostile workplace environment:

1. Sexual harassment

2. Workplace bullying

3. Discrimination

A hostile work environment is prohibited under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Under California law, a hostile work environment is created when an employee or several employees are subjected to unwelcome conduct or inappropriate behavior that is severe or pervasive enough to create a workplace that is intimidating, offensive, or hostile.

The following characteristics are protected under the FEHA:

• Age

• Race and color

• National origin

• Ancestry

• Religion and creed

• Physical and mental disability

• Sex and gender

• Marital status

• Sexual orientation

• Medical condition

• Gender identity or expression

• Genetic information

• Veteran and military status

In order to seek legal remedies in Los Angeles or elsewhere in California, you must be able to prove that the conduct that created a hostile work environment was severe or pervasive enough.

What are the signs that you work in a hostile work environment?

Many employees fail to recognize conditions leading to a hostile work environment. Some of the most common signs that you work in a hostile work environment include:

1. You or your coworkers are frequently subjected to verbal or non-verbal anger or aggression in the workplace;

2. You or your coworkers are frequently subjected to verbal or non-verbal sexual harassment at work;

3. You or your coworkers have been discriminated against based on characteristics protected under federal or state law;

4. You are belittled or humiliated in front of your colleagues;

5. Your employer sets unrealistic expectations;

6. Your employer encourages or requires unhealthy competition between workers;

7. Your employer, supervisor, or coworkers do not respect your boundaries or privacy;

8. Your employer threatens you or other workers with unjustified punishment, demotion, pay cuts, termination, or abuse;

9. Your employer frequently makes derogatory comments, offensive jokes, or uses slurs when communicating with employees; or

10. Your workplace lacks appreciation or acknowledgment.

Hostile work environment and negative affect on your health

A hostile work environment not only creates an unpleasant atmosphere in the workplace but can also have a negative impact on your health. A study by the American Institute of Stress shows that job stress is a leading cause of stress for millions of Americans.

In fact, victims of harassment, workplace bullying, and discrimination may notice changes in their behavior and emotional stability. Working in a hostile work environment can result in the following symptoms:

• Anxiety

• Depression

• Low self-esteem

• Diminished self-confidence

• Post-traumatic stress disorder

• Sleep problems

• Headaches

• Mood swings

• Damaged relationships with friends and family

• Irritable bowel syndrome

• Racing heartbeat

These and other health effects can take a toll on an employee’s physical, emotional, mental, psychological wellbeing.

Proving a hostile work environment

When filing a claim for a hostile work environment, the complainant has the burden of proof to prove that the underlying acts were severe or pervasive enough to meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment.

When reviewing an employee’s claim, the appropriate agency will first determine if the complainant has grounds to file a claim to seek legal remedies. Evidence that may prove the validity of a hostile work environment claim include:

• Correspondence with the perpetrator whose inappropriate behavior created a hostile work environment

• Documentation or a journal proving that the perpetrator’s conduct was pervasive or severe

• Witness statements

Los Angeles and California courts consider the frequency and severity of the alleged discriminatory actions, harassing behavior, or workplace bullying to determine whether or not the employee has grounds for a hostile work environment claim.

Thus, the documentation and evidence that you present must prove the following:

• The unwelcome conduct was pervasive or severe

• You were specifically targeted by the perpetrator’s conduct

• You were offended, humiliated, or distressed by the conduct

It is critical to document all incidents of unwelcome conduct and any relevant conversations. Keep in mind that isolated incidents of inappropriate behavior do not create a hostile work environment unless you can prove that these incidents are egregiously severe.

Statute of limitations

Under California law, victims of a hostile work environment can file a claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing within three years from the date of the last incident. However, once you receive a right-to-sue letter from the DFEH, you have an additional one year to pursue a lawsuit in court.

Penalties available in California

Since state and federal laws protect employees from discriminatory or harassing actions and workplace bullying, you may be eligible for monetary compensation when you become a victim of a hostile work environment in California. Penalties available in a hostile work environment lawsuit may include:

• Loss of income

• Loss of employment opportunities

• Medical expenses, including the cost of medication

• Damages for emotional and psychological distress

• Attorney's fees and legal costs associated with taking legal action

• Punitive damages

To identify what compensation may be available in your hostile work environment case, you need to speak with a lawyer.

For more information

Call us at 888-762-0297 if you want to speak with an attorney who handles hostile work environment cases.

Your consultation will be confidential, informative, and free.

We take all cases on contingency and advance all costs - which we only are reimbursed if we successfully recover on your behalf.

We represent clients in Los Angeles and other cities in California.

Last updated on October 10, 2021.

Additional Resources

• Hostile work environment and workplace stress