If your employer yelled at you and threw a notebook in your direction, would that be grounds for a hostile work environment?
Not according to a federal court of appeals in Washington, D.C. Several years ago, in Brooks v. Grundmann, the court decided that the manager’s behavior was nothing more than “an isolated expression of frustration” and was insufficient to support the plaintiff’s federal race and sex hostile work environment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The plaintiff, Patricia Brooks, alleged that her male supervisor created a hostile work environment from 2005-08 by yelling at and insulting her in front of colleagues, as well as throwing a notebook in her direction when he was upset with her presentation of a new project.
Brooks’ case was dismissed because she neglected to prove that the conduct that had created the alleged hostile work environment was severe or pervasive. Based on her allegations and the fact that her supervisor had some legitimate concerns about her performance (and instructed her of them appropriately), the court maintained that the conduct was not sufficiently severe to support her claims.
Although some of her examples clearly represent poor managerial skills, they are not considered, by law, to have created a hostile work environment.
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
The findings were similar in Fichter v. AMG Resources Corporation. Plaintiff Shirley Fichter brought a suit against her employer claiming unlawful termination and gender discrimination due to a hostile work environment, citing:
- Her manager telling her she should work closer to home
- Asking her to turn more work over to her colleague
- Asking her to complete her work faster so she doesn’t hold up her colleagues’ work
- Require that she advise a manager if she would be arriving late or leaving early
- Keeping track of her vacation
- Asking her for information but then leaving the office without telling her and before she could provide requested information to him
The court decided that what her manager was asking of her are items managers generally ask of their employees, so nothing amounted to a Title VII violation.
The EEOC on a Hostile Work Environment
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the legal requirements for a hostile work environment are:
- Actions or behavior that discriminates against a protected classification such as age, race, religion, sex, or disability
- Behavior that lasts over time, and is not be limited to an off-color remark or two. These claims must be reported to human resources for intervention
- Hostile behavior, actions or communication that are severe and create an environment that a reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile, abusive and disrupt work. Another form of severity occurs if the hostile work environment interferes with an employee’s career advancement
- The employer knows about the actions or behavior and did not sufficiently intervene
Another hot topic as of late is workplace bullying, which also fits under the hostile work environment umbrella. About 37 percent of adult American employees are said to have experienced some type of bullying at work and 80 percent of that bullying is legal.