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What is a "hostile work environment" in California?

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits many kinds of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. If such acts become pervasive in scope or frequency, the victims of such acts may find themselves in a "hostile work environment." In this post, we will review the elements that can create a hostile work environment.

The first element in proving the existence of a hostile work environment is to show that the victim belongs to a protected class, i.e., is female, is a racial minority or suffers from a mental or physical disability. State law also prohibits other types of discrimination based upon religion, military status and other categories. The harassing conduct must be unwanted, such as sexual overtures or use of abusive language. Harassing conduct can also include promotional practices that disfavor a particular racial or ethnic group.

The employee must then prove that their supervisor engaged in the prohibited conduct. A co-worker, for example, may testify to having observed the supervisor make a harassing gesture or use offensive language. In some cases, the employee may also prove that the supervisor's superiors were aware of the harassing conduct and failed to take appropriate corrective action. The key element is proof that the prohibited conduct was severe or pervasive; isolated incidents do not meet this standard. The plaintiff must also convince the jury that a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position would consider the work environment to be hostile or abusive. Finally, the plaintiff must prove that they were harmed by the prohibited conduct. Such harm can be physical, emotional or economic.

Many people in hostile work environments may think they have no adequate remedy because they fear that a complaint may cost them their job, but this kind of employer retaliation is also prohibited by state law. Anyone who feels they may be in a hostile work environment may wish to consult an experienced employment lawyer for a review of the employment situation. A knowledgeable attorney can provide advice on the likelihood of prevailing in a lawsuit claiming a hostile work environment and recovering damages.

Source: Judicial Council of California, Civil Jury Instructions ยง2521A, accessed on Sept. 24, 2016

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