What is Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 26 January 2020
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Hostile environment sexual harassment typically refers to a form of sexual harassment that occurs in a workplace and that makes continued employment in that workplace untenable for reasons of sexual harassment. This can be perpetrated by the owner or management of a workplace or by other employees and must be either pervasive or severe. The burden of proof in these types of cases can be quite high and proving that a work environment became hostile without management making efforts to correct this problem can be difficult. Hostile environment sexual harassment cases often arise from repeated incidents that are not stopped or prevented by management.

Since hostile environment sexual harassment is relatively new as a concept, when compared to some other forms of harassment, it can still be somewhat difficult to precisely define. “Quid pro quo” sexual harassment typically refers to an instance of sexual harassment between a manager or owner of a business and an employee in which it is made apparent that a raise, bonus, promotion, or continued employment depends on a trade of sexual favors. Hostile environment sexual harassment, on the other hand, is based on the creation of a work environment in which someone feels harassed regularly or to a severe extent.

Someone must usually prove several major aspects of a case in order to demonstrate that a hostile environment was created. The plaintiff will typically have to prove that he or she suffered from unwanted discrimination or harassment due to his or her gender to establish a case for hostile environment sexual harassment. He or she will also have to prove that the harassment was severe or repeated, but both of these conditions do not have to be proven. A hostile environment sexual harassment case also depends on the fact that the environment that was created had a direct and negative impact on the person’s work experience.

In order to prove hostile environment sexual harassment, the plaintiff will typically have to demonstrate that any reasonable person would have been similarly offended or unable to work in the same environment. This can be somewhat open to interpretation, and establishing a baseline of what a reasonable person would find offensive can have a tremendous impact on a hostile environment sexual harassment case. The plaintiff will also have to prove that management was either directly responsible for the harassment or was aware of it, and that efforts were not made to stop the harassment. Though the harassment typically has to be pervasive throughout a workplace to justify litigation, many employers may fire an employee over a single incident to avoid the possibility of a future lawsuit.

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Post 3

@irontoenail - In theory he should be able to claim that she's making his work environment hostile, especially if he's gone through whatever discipline was meted out to him and there have been no further incidents.

I think it's a tough call, to be honest, because there are definitely cases where people will not speak up about jokes or minor incidences that make them uncomfortable for the fear of being told they are overreacting. And a simple joke can really hurt if it's based on a bigoted viewpoint. It's not something anyone should have to endure.

Post 2

@pleonasm - I'd say the difficulty also lies in the fact that sometimes people say they were in a hostile work environment, but no one actually did anything to make it that hostile. Everything is relative and one person's hostile environment is another person's place to thrive.

There are definitely lines that should never be crossed and there should be laws protecting the vulnerable. But those laws shouldn't be exploited by someone who is just angry that they were never given the right donuts they wanted at the morning meetings.

My stepfather made a single dumb joke at his workplace that he later apologized for and one of his co-workers has made it her mission to get him fired because

of it. She's claiming sexual harassment even though the joke wasn't directed at her, or anyone in particular. And my step father knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as he said it and apologized, but she won't see reason about it.
Post 1

The difficulty with this kind of situation is that if your environment is completely hostile it's not likely anyone is going to stick up for you and back your story if you try to report it or take your employer to court. They will all feel like they are culpable in your harassment and work to try and keep you from spoiling their "fun".

Even people who aren't feeling victimized by the same behavior might end up harming your case, because the first thing a defending lawyer will do is ask if people in a similar situation to yours felt the same way, even though that shouldn't really matter.

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