Work is often one of the most significant portions of your day, so the environment where you spend this time has a huge influence on your overall well-being and quality of life. As the number of complaints and issues related to the workplace continues to increase, it’s important to understand what exactly contributes to a hostile work environment and how to address it. Working with a Sacramento hostile work environment attorney can help to provide some of that understanding.
Employment Rights and the Hostile Work Environment
The concept of employment is centered around the idea that California workers have the right to a safe and respectable work environment where they can perform their duties. Unwanted behaviors, inappropriate comments, or any offensive action against an individual due to their race, gender, age, religion, disability, or any other protected characteristic can make it extremely difficult to continue performing their job effectively.
These cases can, unfortunately, go unreported for years. An employee may feel like their livelihood could be taken away from them if they escalate an accusation of abuse that is not taken seriously. The fear of this backfiring and losing your job is crippling, even when someone believes it could easily be proven to be a wrongful termination.
Understanding what this type of abuse looks like in the workplace and how to effectively address it can empower today’s employees to not let any form of abuse slide. It can also help you understand how to protect yourself and other employees.
Some common attributes of a hostile work environment include:
- Offensive jokes. There can be time for fun in the workplace, but it cannot be at anyone else’s expense. This includes attempts at humor that target specific groups and other protected characteristics. These types of jokes can perpetuate harmful stereotypes in the workplace, creating a divisive environment that makes people on the other end of the joke feel singled out and unwelcome.
- Ridicule and insults. Any instances of persistent mockery or disrespectful comments that are intended to wear down someone’s self-esteem need to be addressed immediately. These can be some of the most destructive behaviors that can build over time to create what might seem like an irreversible hostile environment.
- Threats and intimidation. Sometimes, an individual may feel threatened at work to behave in a certain way or face disastrous consequences. This could happen if someone is trying to keep power over another colleague or forces them to make a risky decision. No one should be forced to act against their own will in a workplace setting, which is why any evidence of threats or intimidation needs to be addressed immediately.
- Malicious behavior. This broader category includes some of the more heinous hostile behaviors that sometimes occur at work. From deliberately sabotaging someone’s work, spreading false rumors, or even going out of one’s way to harm someone’s reputation, these malicious behaviors are unacceptable.
While this is not a complete list, it paints an image of what type of behavior contributes to a hostile work environment. Being able to recognize the signs and escalate any observations to senior leadership is a crucial skill to help keep a work environment safe and productive.
What Is Needed to Prove a Case for a Hostile Work Environment?
Depending on how slick the perpetrators in your work environment are, it can be quite challenging to collect any evidence that proves the hostility of their actions. Working with an attorney can help to reduce this challenge.
Some common elements of successful hostile work environment claims include:
- Unwanted conduct. First, the behavior or conduct that is being questioned must be clearly unwelcome. This means the victim is willing to state that they did not solicit the behavior and did not want it to happen.
- Protected categories. If the unwelcomed behavior was targeted toward a protected category of individuals, such as a specific race, gender, or sexual orientation, this specific instance could be connected to a larger pattern of behavior that demonstrates an individual’s prejudice.
Authorities or a judge may request other information about the accused individual outside of work to see if it can be linked to any discriminatory behaviors found in their personal lives as well, like gender harassment.
- Severity. If the behavior was so severe that any reasonable person would recognize it as a form of abuse, it’s a positive indication that the authorities and legal professionals working on your case would have a similar reaction. Having another colleague who witnessed the severity of the behavior and can testify what they saw can go a long way to illustrate the severity.
- Employer knowledge. If there is any evidence that a direct manager or leader in the organization knew about any hostile behavior and failed to take any corrective action, this could be another piece of evidence used to explain how the hostile environment has continued to grow. For example, any time-stamped emails or text messages where an employee has alerted their employer of an incident can at least prove they were aware of an accusation.
- Medical evidence. In some cases of physical or mental abuse, there may be medical records to help prove what happened if the individual sought treatment to deal with the incidents. A therapist, for instance, may be able to share how they diagnosed their client with anxiety or depression as a result of what they were dealing with at work.
What Are the Damages for a Hostile Work Environment in California?
When an employee in California can successfully prove their hostile work environment claim to be true, they will be awarded some combination of compensation to address the damages they endured. The specifics of each damage will be awarded based on the context of what happened, but they might include some of the following:
- Back pay. This financial award refers to any money that the individual would have earned if the hostile abuse prevented them from continuing to work. This includes all typical wages, bonuses, benefits, and any other compensation program the company may have set up.
- Front pay. If back pay isn’t feasible due to the nature of the incident, front pay may be awarded instead. This form of compensation is still able to get money in the hands of the victim for wages that would be earned from the date of judgment into the future.
- Lost benefits. If an individual faces any disruptions to their health insurance, retirement plans, or stock options, this can be resolved in the form of compensatory damages. For example, the court could agree to cover any unpaid medical expenses that were charged during the window of abuse. They could also require an employer to not charge the employee for a specific benefit for a certain period of time.
- Emotional distress. A lot of workplace harassment cases seek to be compensated for emotional distress. This is because the nature of these incidents can have true psychological consequences on the victim. If there is any evidence of anxiety, stress, depression, or any other emotional trauma that would not have happened otherwise, there is a chance the victim could receive emotional distress compensation.
- Punitive damages. In some cases, a court will award punitive damages as a portion of the victim’s entire compensation package. The intent is to deter any similar behavior from happening again at the organization. These damages can be intense in California, especially if there is any evidence the employer acted with intentional malice.
- Attorney fees. Because the victim in a hostile work environment case did not ask to be in this situation, the court may order the employer to pay for their attorney costs. This can be incorporated into an entire compensation award to ensure the victim has not lost any of their own personal money due to someone else’s actions.
- Expungement. If there were any unfair negative evaluations documented about a victim that has been proven to be an act of abuse rather than a valid observation, the court can request to strike this from the employee’s record. This is to ensure that in addition to receiving financial compensation, there is also no impact on the employee’s reputation now and into the future of their career.
- Training or policy changes. To keep this abuse from happening again to anyone at the organization, the court may order more mandated training to the organization or modifications to existing policies.
Contact the Law Office of Jeffrey D. Fulton Today
If you feel like you are working in a hostile work environment and are looking to hold those contributing to the abuse accountable, it’s time to contact an employee harassment attorney. At the Law Office of Jeffrey D. Fulton, we pride ourselves on helping to create more harmonious workplace environments across Sacramento.
We understand the connection between a healthy workplace and an individual’s ability to shine and make a difference. We want to address anything that is preventing you from achieving your career goals. Contact us today to discuss the process and see how we can help handle your case to get you the justice you deserve.