Unfortunately, toxic work environments are all too common. According to a 2023 Forbes report, toxic work environment is cited as one of the top reasons (along with low pay, limited opportunities for growth, and inflexible hours) that Americans are leaving their jobs. There are many factors that could cause a work environment to be toxic; an unkind boss, favoritism, a rude coworker, or an unpleasant office space might all lead to a toxic company culture. It is likely that you, or someone you know, is dealing with a toxic workplace.

Not all toxic work environments are unlawful; the law only protects workers from a hostile work environment when the offensive behavior or conduct targets a person in a protected class. Federal and state law do not protect workers from general workplace harassment or bullying unconnected with a protected class. If you are experiencing any sort of harmful or unwelcome workplace behavior and believe you are targeted because of your protected class, then the conduct may be illegal. It is crucial to remain vigilant regarding any inappropriate conduct, and to be aware of common red flags that signal a hostile work environment.

Legal Protections Against a Hostile Work Environment

Numerous federal and state employment laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), protect employees from working in a hostile environment. According to these laws, a hostile work environment occurs when harassing unwelcome conduct (based on race, gender identity, national origin, sexual orientation, or any protected characteristic) creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, abusive, or impacts the employee’s ability to work. Workplace harassment from a supervisor, coworker, team member, client, or vendor could reasonably create a hostile work environment, so long as the employer does not take necessary steps to prevent harassment from occurring.

It is noteworthy that harassment that is either severe or pervasive can create a hostile work environment. Relatively minor offensive conduct, such as sexually offensive jokes or innuendos, may create a hostile work environment if they are pervasive, in other words occurring repeatedly. On the flip side, an isolated incident of severely offensive discriminatory behavior, such as the use of a single racial slur like the n-word, could also create a hostile work environment.

Harassment may create a hostile work environment for all employees, not just the target of the hostile behavior. While the targeted employee may bear the brunt of the misconduct, they are not the sole individuals impacted within the workplace. Employers are responsible for fostering a safe work environment, and if they are negligent, all employees who are in the protected class and witnessed harassment may be considered victims, even if they are not the primary targets of the inappropriate behavior.

Signs of a Hostile Work Environment

It can be hard to determine whether or not you are in an unlawfully hostile work environment, but there are some common red flags. Be aware of the following warning signs:

  • First and foremost, trust your gut. If, due to a harassment or hostility at work, you feel like something is wrong, you are uncomfortable, unsafe, your work performance suffers, or your well-being or mental health is negatively impacted, you may be in a hostile work environment.
  • If you observe toxic behavior at work, such as bullying, gossip, exclusion, verbal abuse, shaming, or miscommunication, make note. More serious harassing conduct is often accompanied or foreshadowed by the presence of toxic workplace culture.
  • Unwelcome behavior that is repetitive, or that escalates over time, may signal a hostile work environment. While a one-off incident of an offensive comment will likely not create a hostile workplace, offensive conduct that is pervasive very well may create hostility at work.
  • Physical harassment, including physical sexual harassment, or aggressive physical behavior, is inappropriate and likely causes a hostile workplace environment. Physical aggression, sexual or otherwise, may violate other laws in addition.
  • A significant sign that you are in a hostile work environment is if nothing changes after you report an issue to managers, supervisors, or the human resources department. Both federal and state laws mandate that employers investigate and address reports of discrimination and harassment. Given that the work environment often mirrors the actions and attitudes of those in leadership roles, hostility persists when management engages in, condones, or turns a blind eye to harassment and abuse.

Dealing with a Hostile Environment

Most of us spend a significant portion of our time at work. As such, it is important that you feel safe and comfortable in the workplace. If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable at work or believe you may be dealing with a hostile work environment, it is important to take action.

The right course of action will depend on your circumstances. For some, it may be effective to report hostile or harassing conduct to a manager, supervisor, or HR. For others, it might be best to leave the job behind and search for a healthier workplace. Others may consider taking legal action by bringing a hostile work environment claim against their employer. No matter your circumstance, it is beneficial to consult with an employment attorney at a law firm who can assess your situation and provide legally informed advice about potential next steps.

If you are interested in holding your employer accountable by bringing legal claims, reach out to an employment attorney for legal advice as soon as you can as you may have limited time to act.