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What exactly is a hostile work environment, legally?

Some places are just not great places to work. You may have an incompetent boss, a rude supervisor or a clique of coworkers that makes life unpleasant for anyone not in the club. But is any of that enough to make a hostile work environment, legally speaking?

No. Having to work with incompetent, rude, domineering or even outright unpleasant people isn't something that matters, legally. So what does?

In order to have a legally hostile work environment, your harasser has to make it virtually impossible for you to do your job through a pattern of severe and pervasive conduct. For example, you could be given unreasonably short deadlines that your boss knows you can't meet, subjected to daily "jokes" about your gender to the point that you feel demeaned and harassed or find that important documents start going missing from your desk and work gets deleted off your computer if you leave it unattended, forcing you to redo everything.

You also have to be targeted in a discriminatory fashion due to something that puts you in a protected class either through federal or state law. For example, in California, the discrimination could be based on your race, religion or gender, but it could also be based on your gender identity, a medical condition or information about your genetics.

It's also discrimination if the hostility started or increased in retaliation after you make a complaint to your management or human resources department about someone's inappropriate remarks or behavior. For example, if you complained to human resources that one of your coworkers was telling lewd jokes and the coworker and his or her friends retaliate against you afterwards by shutting you out of important work meetings and "forgetting" to tell you about changed deadlines or other crucial updates, that's illegal and creates a hostile work environment.

The first step toward resolving any hostile work environment situation is to let someone in authority know about the situation and ask for it to stop. If your complaints are ignored or the situation worsens, it may be time to talk to an attorney instead.

Source: U.S. Department of the Interior, "Hostile Work Environment," accessed Feb. 20, 2017

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