Hostile Work Environment
All Tennessee employees deserve to work in a safe environment free from harassment, discrimination, or retaliation. State law requires employers to provide a non-hostile work environment for their employees. But unfortunately, thousands of workplace discrimination charges are filed in Tennessee every year.
A hostile work environment can feel like a nightmare, isolating you from others and interfering with your ability to do your job. If you believe you may have grounds for a hostile work environment claim, it’s a good idea to consult with a knowledgeable employment law attorney. A workplace discrimination lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and support you through every stage in your pursuit of rightful compensation.
At the Employment and Consumer Law Group, our team is exclusively dedicated to defending the rights of employees and consumers in Tennessee. With years of experience and a deep knowledge of state and federal employment law, we know what it takes to hold negligent employers and big corporations accountable.
To discuss the details of your case with a qualified attorney, contact us today for a free, confidential consultation.
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
Federal and state laws forbid hostile work environments, which are defined as work environments in which employees are discriminated against on the basis of protected characteristics. In Tennessee, workers are legally protected from discrimination based on the following characteristics:
- Race: Qualities associated with a person’s ethnic group, physical appearance, culture, history, or language
- Color: A person’s skin color, shade, complexion, pigmentation, or tone
- Creed: A person’s system of faith, philosophy, or set of fundamental beliefs
- Sex: A person’s biological sex or self-identified status as male, female, transgender, gender-neutral, or non-binary
- Disability: Any physical or cognitive condition that limits a person’s ability to complete or participate in certain activities
- National origin: A person’s state, country, or nation of birth or descent
- Religion: A person’s belief in or belonging to a particular system of faith
- Age: Discrimination is forbidden against those who are 40 years old or older
- Genetic information: A person’s genetic predisposition toward gene mutations and inherited disorders
It’s important to understand that rude, inappropriate, or bullying behaviors in the workplace are not necessarily considered evidence of a hostile work environment. Only harassment based on one or more of the protected characteristics listed above is legally regarded as unlawful workplace discrimination.
What Are the Types of Hostile Work Environments?
Depending on the culture, management, and other workplace characteristics, a hostile work environment can take many different forms. Generally speaking, hostile work environments are those that involve:
- Employer discrimination: Employers encouraging, allowing, or participating in the discrimination or harassment of employees based on race, age, sex, religion, disability, or other protected characteristics. This can involve ostracizing behaviors, demeaning comments, slurs, mocking, and wrongful termination or refusal to promote.
- Sexual harassment: This can include unwelcome sexual comments, advances, physical touching, lewd gestures, messages, and unwanted exposure. Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when superiors request sexual favors in return for work-related perks or advancement opportunities.
- Inappropriate communication: Spoken, written, or implied communication intended to ridicule another person or purposely make them uncomfortable. This can involve creating offensive jokes or emails, asking inappropriate personal questions, sharing inappropriate adult content, or publicly humiliating others.
- Intimidating behavior: Bullying behavior involves a pattern of aggressive, disrespectful, or otherwise abusive conduct toward another. Workplace intimidation can involve verbal, physical, written, or implied threats, as well as retaliation against whistleblowers.
Proving a Hostile Work Environment Claim
A hostile work environment involves “severe or pervasive” harassment of victims based on their protected class. To prove that a work environment should legally be considered hostile, an employee must demonstrate:
- They are a member of a legally protected class. This is typically one of the easiest elements to prove but is a critical component of a successful hostile work environment claim.
- They are experiencing unwelcome harassment. Evidence of harassment can come from co-worker or witness statements, video footage, employer records, and personal notes or recordings.
- The harassment is based on their protected class. An employee can prove harassment based on their protected class by demonstrating that they are treated differently from similar employees who do not share their status.
- The harassment is pervasive. Employees must show evidence that the harassment is “pervasive,” which means it occurs frequently and repeatedly instead of isolated incidents of harassment or discrimination.
- The harassment is severe. Severe harassment involves physical violence or threats of violence, unwanted physical touching, offensive language or insults based on someone’s protected class, or interference with someone’s ability to work or progress their career.
Employer’s Responsibility to Stop a Hostile Work Environment
The law holds employers responsible for everything that happens at their workplaces, which means employers have a legal duty to establish and maintain harassment-free work environments. However, depending on the status of the person(s) committing the discriminatory behavior, your employer may not be automatically at fault:
- Supervisors and managers: Employers are automatically considered liable for harassment or discrimination perpetrated by supervisors or managers if the behavior results in employee termination, failure to promote, failure to hire, or loss of wages. In other cases, employers can only be held liable for hostile work environments created by superiors if employees can prove they took advantage of company procedures designed to address harassment and their employer subsequently failed to prevent or correct the harassing behavior.
- Co-workers and third parties: Employers can only be held responsible for harassment or discrimination by co-workers or third-party non-employees if employees can demonstrate two things.
First, employees must prove the employer exercised control over the non-supervisory employee or non-employee. Second, employees must prove their employer was aware (or should have been aware) of the harassment and neglected to take reasonably prompt corrective action.
Damages From a Hostile Work Environment Case
In some cases, a hostile work environment may have no direct impact on an employee’s financial status. Along with the highly subjective nature of discrimination, this means it can be difficult for harassment victims to estimate the amount of compensation they could be entitled to. The value of a hostile work environment case can vary based on:
- The severity of the discrimination or harassment
- The amount of money you lost in wages or benefits
- Whether or not you made efforts to report the harassment
- Your employer’s history of similar legal violations
The damages, or money you could receive from a hostile work environment claim, may include compensation for:
- Back pay: Any earnings you lost as a result of the harassment from the date of the initial incident or termination through to the time of the court’s decision
- Future pay: Projected future earnings you will lose as a result of discrimination or a hostile work environment, calculated from the date of judgment until a future date as determined by a judge or jury
- Lost benefits: The value of lost benefits such as insurance coverage, stock options, pensions, or profit-sharing opportunities
- Pain and suffering: Financial compensation for emotional distress, depression, and anxiety caused by workplace harassment, as well as medical expenses related to the treatment of these issues
- Legal fees: Additional compensation intended to cover expenses such as your attorney’s fees, court costs, and fees paid to expert witnesses
Employee Workplace Rights
Tennessee employees have a right to fair employment opportunities and the ability to work in an environment free of illegal discrimination or harassment. State law also forbids retaliation against employees, job applicants, or third parties who raise complaints or participate in investigations concerning discrimination, harassment, or hostile work environments.
Employers in Tennessee must display several equal employment opportunity (EEO) notices in prominent workplace locations for their employees, including posters that feature information about anti-discrimination laws. These notices encourage victims and witnesses of workplace harassment or discrimination to report illegal conduct as soon as possible.
Supervisors who receive harassment complaints from employees must report such events to human resources departments, EEO officers, or other designees within the company. However, if an employee does not feel comfortable filing a complaint within the organization, they are encouraged to contact the state Department of Human Resources (DOHR).
When an official complaint is filed, the DOHR will promptly carry out a “thorough and neutral” investigation of the alleged discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. A DOHR investigation typically involves interviews with the individual who filed the complaint, the person accused of discrimination, and any relevant witnesses. State officials work to maintain the confidentiality of victims as much as possible.
How Can Employment and Consumer Law Group Help Me?
If you’re already dealing with the stress of a hostile work environment in Nashville, the decision to hire an attorney can feel daunting. You may be worried about escalating matters or losing your job due to retaliation.
At the Employment and Consumer Law Group, we provide free case reviews with no risk or obligation to you. Everything you share with us will be kept strictly confidential, and you will not be asked to sign any contracts or pay any fees to receive a thorough evaluation of your legal options.
No matter how serious or complex your hostile work environment case may be, we’re here to help. Contact us today to get started with your free consultation.