Hostile Work Environment: Others’ Bad Behavior
A hostile work environment in Oklahoma can make going to work a miserable experience. A lot of conditions can make a workplace feel hostile to an employee. A hostile work environment is one in which the employee reasonably feels and is in fact harassed. A hostile work environment is more than a couple of off-color jokes or comments by a boss or co-worker.
The US Dept of Labor defines two kinds of hostile environment. The first is a quid pro quo –or “this for that” arrangement in the workplace. It is often based on an employee’s acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual advances or sexual favors. A boss may offer you that promotion only if you let him grope you in the supply closet.
The other kind of harassment is based on creating a hostile work environment. This type of harassment can be more nuanced, because similarly insulting conduct either may or may not contribute to a hostile work environment as the law defines it.
Dept. of Labor standards say a created hostile work environment is based on the employee’s protected status–that is, an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, pregnancy, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation or parental status.
For purposes of Oklahoma unemployment law, Dept. of Labor standards define some, but not all of the circumstances that can contribute to a hostile work environment. Sexual or racial harassment might be more clearly delineated, but simple hatred, anger or persistent meanness can rise the the level of creating a hostile work environment.
A worker persistently roasted by coworkers for liking a particular sports teams might sometimes find work uncomfortable – especially if his team wins a championship against a hometown team and he wears the winning teams’ regalia to work — but on its own the roasting might not create a hostile work environment. Persistent harassment over national origin, however, could create a hostile environment.
What the Harrassment Looks Like
To be an element of a hostile workplace, harassing conduct must be both unwelcome by the employee and such that a reasonable person would consider it harassment.
The conduct must objectively be so severe and pervasive that a reasonable person would find the work environment to be hostile or abusive. The conduct may come from a boss, a co-worker or any other person in the workplace. This determination is made on a case by case basis looking at such conduct factors as:
- threatening/humiliating conduct;
- interference with work performance;
- psychological effect;
- a power differential between victim and perpetrator.
Here are some behaviors cited by the Department of Labor that may contribute to an unlawful hostile environment:
- discussion of sexual activities;
- off-color jokes regarding race, sex, disability, etc;
- unnecessary touching or commenting on physical appearance;
- display of sexually suggestive or racially insensitive pictures;
- use of demeaning terms or epithets;
- indecent gestures; crude language;
- sabotaging the victim’s work;
- hostile physical conduct.
Examples of Harassment Complaints
Sometimes an employee cannot take the level of harassment anymore, quits and files for unemployment benefits. Sometimes, the employer contests those benefits. In general, if you leave work voluntarily, you are not allowed to collect benefits unless there is good cause to leave. (OESC § 2-404) However, a hostile work environment is good cause under the statute.
For example, an 18-year employee had long put up with a pattern of hostile conduct in the workplace. When he could no longer stand it, he quit and filed for benefits. At a Board of Review hearing, the claimant was determined to have good cause for quitting. It was not required that the employee quit as soon as the conduct began. (17-AT-09137-BR).
In another case, a claimant quit his job after putting up with his boss cursing him and not paying him overtime that the employee had earned. Section 2-405 (2) states that good cause for quitting can include substantially unfair treatment or substantially difficult working conditions. Being cursed at during work every day and not being paid for work performed qualified as good cause. (14-AT-08489-BR)
This is a complicated area of the Oklahoma unemployment law. Small facts are important. Taken together, separate incidents can lead to large patterns of behavior. If you quit a job because of a hostile work environment, speak to an experienced unemployment expert in the Tulsa area regarding filing for benefits. And an Oklahoma unemployment lawyer can help you protect your benefits.
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