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Hostile Work Environment and Workplace Harassment: What Is the Difference Between Them?

Published December 31, 2021 by Employment and Commerce Law Group
What Is the Difference Between a Hostile Work Environment and Workplace Harassment?

Laws against workplace discrimination protect employees and provide legal guidance on what to do when an employer breaks the rules. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers many factors to determine when violations occur. Understanding the terms used to define discriminatory practices is critical when identifying whether violations happened.

Two key terms used to analyze workplace complaints are “hostile work environment” and “workplace harassment.” But what’s the difference between the two? Below, the employment attorneys at the Employment and Commerce Law Group discuss how to know when a toxic work situation crosses the line.

Hostile Work Environment vs. Workplace Harassment

Many federal laws outlaw discriminatory harassment, which occurs when someone disparages, intimidates, or threatens another person based on protected characteristics. Protected characteristics include personal traits such as age, race, national origin, gender, or disability.

Legally, harassment and a hostile work environment are closely related. Harassment is what creates a hostile work environment. For a workplace to be considered a hostile work environment, some form of unwelcome conduct must be discriminatory based on the EEOC’s protected characteristics.

Workplace harassment can be perpetrated by employers, supervisors, coworkers, or clients. Retaliating against employees who complain about or act as whistleblowers for workplace discrimination can also be workplace harassment.

Workplace harassment leads to a hostile work environment when:

  • The harassment is based on a person’s actual identity or characteristics perceived as belonging to a protected group.
  • The harassment is so pervasive that it disrupts an employee’s ability to do their job.
  • The person who brings a workplace harassment claim reasonably believes that tolerating the harassment is a condition of their continued employment.

Is Bullying Considered Workplace Harassment?

Bullying is similar to workplace harassment because a bully’s goal is to create a power imbalance between themselves and their target. However, bullying is not necessarily the same as harassment. Harassment must stem from discrimination based on legally protected characteristics, but a person may choose to bully another for many other reasons.

If someone is an equal-opportunity offender who targets everyone, their behavior would be considered bullying but not harassment. Victims of workplace bullying do not have grounds for federal workplace harassment cases unless they are being targeted based on their legally protected characteristics.

What to Do If You Are Bullied or Harassed at Work

If you believe you are the target of workplace harassment based on a protected characteristic, your first step should be to read your employer’s anti-harassment policies. These policies are typically outlined in employee handbooks or other new hire documentation.

Most employers have systems in place to address harassment complaints in the workplace. If your employer can prove that you failed to notify them of the harassment to allow them an opportunity to correct the situation, they may use it against you when you attempt to file a claim.

If you tried taking advantage of your employer’s anti-harassment correction policies to no avail, you can file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Tennessee Department of Human Resources.

Contact the Employment and Commerce Law Group Today

If you are experiencing workplace harassment or struggling in a hostile work environment, a Tennessee discrimination lawyer from the Employment and Commerce Law Group can review your situation and determine your next steps. Call or contact us today for a free consultation.

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