The Difference Between Workplace Bullying & a Hostile Work Environment

Many times, the terms “workplace bullying” and “hostile work environment” are used interchangeably to define poor treatment of an employee that is either instigated by the employer or by employees who are not prevented by the employer from treating a co-worker poorly. Legally, there is a distinct difference between these two, as the court will not intervene in matters of workplace bullying, but it will act in a hostile work environment. Let’s examine the differences between the two situations and what they mean for your ability to obtain a legal remedy.

What is Workplace Bullying?

Another term that is quite familiar to most people is “schoolyard bullying,” which is a type of behavior commonly seen among groups of children where a bully singles out a certain person in a targeted effort to cause harm to the interpersonal relationships and the reputation of the child. Unfortunately, this behavior has been increasingly seen exhibited in the workplace by adults, as well. In fact, according to a survey on the matter, about half of U.S. workers have either been the target of workplace bullying or have witnessed someone else being bullied at work.

Workplace bullying includes acts of humiliation, intimidation, and threats. This behavior is often consistent and is meant to inflict mental and psychological harm. In more than two-thirds of the instances in which a person is the subject of workplace bullying, the bully behavior is exhibited by the person’s boss. In most cases, the victim of the behavior is in a non-supervisory position. And in most cases, the behavior is legal.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

There is a type of bullying that is against federal law, and an employee who experiences this type of bullying can take action in court to obtain compensation for harm caused by it. If the victim of the harassing, intimidating, or threatening behavior is part of a legally protected class, then the behavior qualifies as a violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and associated civil rights laws. A legally protected class is a group of individuals who are protected from discrimination as a result of:

  • Race or ethnicity – Employers cannot refuse to hire an employee or deprive him or her of benefits afforded to other employees on the basis of race or ethnicity.
  • Religion – Employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, as long as it doesn’t negatively impact the business.
  • Age – Employers cannot state specific age preferences when advertising positions and cannot use age as a reason to deny certain benefits to employees that other workers are provided.
  • Sex, including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or sexual identity – Individuals have the right to be paid a fair wage for their work that is equal to the pay other workers receive for similar work, regardless of gender, orientation, or sexual identity.
  • Disability – Reasonable accommodations must be provided to enable disabled workers to hold a position in the workplace.
  • Genetic information, including family medical history

It should be noted that it is also against the law for an employer to retaliate for the filing of a hostile workplace environment complaint by firing or otherwise punishing the employee who leveraged the complaint or other employees who served as witnesses to the discrimination.

Proving a Hostile Work Environment

It is estimated that about 20 percent of all cases of workplace bullying involve a hostile work environment due to discriminatory harassment of a person in a protected class. Unfortunately, it can often be difficult to prove such cases, and the proof generally relies on the strength of your documentation and the ability to have witnesses corroborate your complaint. If you have been experiencing bullying in the workplace, file a formal complaint with your human resources department. Doing so will often alert others in the organization of the behavior and give opportunity for a resolution. If a resolution is not forthcoming, then your official complaint can serve as evidence for a legal case. You should also keep a list of times when the bullying occurs as well as the names and contact information of anyone who witnessed the harassment.

When making a decision on a hostile work environment complaint, the court will consider the following elements of the case:

  • Consistency. A one-off comment will generally not give rise to a hostile work environment case. However, if the court finds that the discrimination occurs on a regular basis, it will be. 
  • Severity. The courts will consider how severe the instance of discrimination was and how thoroughly the discriminatory behavior was allowed to permeate the workplace.
  • Intention. The court will determine whether the behavior was merely meant to offend or if it constituted a physical threat or humiliation. Often, cases involving harassment that includes physical touching will be viewed as more intentional than and offensive than verbal harassment will be.
  • Interference. Not all harassing behavior constitutes a hostile work environment, even if it involves statements that are discriminatory in nature against an employee of a protected class. In order to be considered a hostile work environment, the harassment must result in an unreasonable interference to the employee’s work performance.

Perkins Asbill Can Help

If you believe you have been the subject of a hostile work environment, it is important to speak with an experienced employment lawyer about your case as soon as possible in order to take advantage of the experience and understanding of this type of complaint. Your attorney can provide a number of services aimed at helping stop the harassment and protect your rights as a member of a legally protected class. Those services include:

  • Assistance in determining if your case meets the legal requirements of a hostile workplace claim, and determining the best legal option for you.
  • Help in collecting and organizing the evidence needed to prove your case.
  • Establishing a value to your claim that is based on the monetary loss that resulted from the harassment, as well as compensation for the psychological injury that you experienced as a result of ongoing harassment.
  • Filing your claim in court within the statutory deadline.
  • Assistance with collecting your settlement or award.

Let an experienced employment lawyer from Perkins Asbill help you understand your legal options. Contact us online or by calling 916-446-2000.