Legally reviewed by: Jessica Anvar Stotz, JD, MBA
Short answer: Under California law, a hostile work environment refers to a work atmosphere that is permeated with discriminatory conduct, based on protected characteristics, that is severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive or intimidating working environment. It occurs when such conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s ability to perform their job and has a detrimental impact on their well-being.
Do you believe that you are a victim of a hostile work environment in California? You may be looking for examples of hostile workplaces to compare your situation to and see what your options may be.
Most Californians will experience hostility in the workplace at least once in their careers. A hostile work environment goes beyond gossipy coworkers or a hot-headed boss. While highly unprofessional and unfavorable, gossiping and constant disagreements are not considered to be legally “hostile” behaviors- unless such conduct is motivated by hate or discrimination.
In California, a hostile work environment is created when offensive or discriminatory conduct present in the workplace restricts an employee’s ability to perform their job. Racial slurs, threats, bullying, sexual harassment, physical fighting and other offensive behaviors contribute to a hostile working environment. Hostile work environments are essentially toxic spaces that routinely dole out intimidation, harassment, and discrimination.
Workplace harassment does not include disagreements or arguments between people at work, it requires an extra level of cruelty or malice to qualify. If the inappropriate conduct at work is motivated by racial or gender discrimination for instance, then the poor conduct is legally considered “hostile” and actively contributing to a hostile work environment.
The inappropriate conduct must be so pervasive that it alters the working environment and creates an abusive and hostile workplace for employees.
|Sexual Harassment||Unwanted sexual advances or actions|
|Harassment||Unwanted actions or comments creating discomfort|
|Bullying||Repeated mistreatment or humiliation|
|Retaliation||Punishment for reporting issues or asserting rights|
|Offensive Language||Inappropriate or discriminatory remarks|
|Intimidation||Threats or fear-inducing behavior|
|Discriminatory Policies||Unfair rules targeting specific groups|
|Exclusion||Ostracizing certain employees|
|Unaddressed Complaints||Employer neglects to handle reported issues|
|Inadequate Training||Lack of education about appropriate behavior|
|Unequal Opportunities||Biased access to promotions, projects, or benefits|
Hostile work environments can be difficult to identify. The following are some examples of behaviors commonly observed in hostile work environment cases:
Unfortunately, not all instances of harassment at work are prohibited under city, state, or federal employment laws. Slight annoyances and isolated incidents are not prohibited by the law, unless these incidents are deemed legally “hostile.” Harassment at work becomes hostile when it is motivated by a protected characteristic.
Take this short quiz to help you determine if you are experiencing a hostile work environment or not.
FEHA is the primary California law that prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in employment. It covers protected classes, such as race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, and age. FEHA applies to employers with five or more employees.
CFRA provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for specific family and medical reasons, including when an employee’s health condition makes them unable to perform their job or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. The act applies to employers with 50 or more employees.
This law protects employees who disclose information to a government or law enforcement agency regarding a violation of state or federal law or regulations, or those who refuse to participate in an activity that would result in a violation of law.
This section prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who file complaints or exercise their rights under the state’s labor laws.
Section 230 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their legal off-duty conduct, meaning activities or hobbies that occur outside of work hours.
This section makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee for reporting workplace safety concerns or hazards to appropriate government agencies.
This law restricts the use of non-compete agreements in employment contracts, ensuring employees have the right to seek employment freely after leaving a job.
This section addresses unfair competition and includes certain unfair business practices that may impact the work environment.
Part of FEHA, this section specifically prohibits harassment and discrimination based on protected characteristics.
This section outlines the procedures for filing complaints with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and pursuing legal remedies for workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
You may also be wondering what the difference between “hostile work environment” and “harassment” is- they typically mean the same thing. Employment attorneys often use these terms interchangeably. Under the law, a hostile work environment case is treated as a case involving harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Person A and Person B work in the same department. Person A consistently undermines and belittles Person B’s contributions during team meetings, often interrupting or dismissing their ideas based on their gender. Person A assigns Person B menial tasks while giving more challenging assignments to male colleagues. Person A frequently makes derogatory comments about women, perpetuating gender stereotypes and creating a hostile work environment. Person B feels marginalized, experiences self-doubt, and is subjected to ongoing gender-based discrimination, leading to increased stress and a negative impact on their professional growth and well-being.
Person A repeatedly displays explicit and pornographic images on their workspace, creating a sexually offensive and uncomfortable atmosphere for Person B and others. Person A engages in explicit conversations, discussing their sexual activities and making lewd remarks about coworkers, including Person B. They consistently make inappropriate sexual jokes and innuendos, subjecting Person B to a continuous pattern of indecent conduct that creates a hostile work environment. Person B feels violated, distressed, and unable to focus on their job due to the ongoing exposure to such indecency, negatively impacting their professional well-being.
Person A, who holds a senior position, consistently bullies and intimidates Person B, creating a hostile work environment. Person A publicly humiliates Person B in team meetings, belittles their ideas, and dismisses their contributions. They engage in personal attacks, spreading rumors and gossip to undermine Person B’s reputation. Person A uses their authority to assign Person B excessive workloads and unrealistic deadlines, intentionally setting them up for failure. The relentless bullying and intimidation from Person A instill fear, stress, and a sense of powerlessness in Person B, negatively impacting their mental well-being and job performance.
Several different actors can create a hostile work environment including the employer, co-workers, managers, company executives, agents, contractors, or visitors. Anyone on the premises of the company can contribute to and or create a hostile workplace. Your employer is responsible for the actions of an employee or agent in the workplace representing the employer.
Hostile workplaces can have profound effects on employees such as:
Keep in mind that you do not have to be the target of workplace harassment to file a claim. Colleagues, co-workers, and other witnesses to the harassment may also be considered victims in a hostile work environment case. Virtually anyone in the workspace can be impacted by hostile conduct, even those who are not the intended targets.
Victims of hostile work environments may file lawsuits against the offenders. The employer may be held liable if the offenders are managers or if the employer fails to take any action despite knowing about a hostile work environment. Some workers may feel hesitant to file claims for these reasons as they fear retaliation from their employer or someone else at work.
Luckily, retaliation for reporting harassment at work is prohibited by the law. You cannot be fired for reporting illegal activity at work, and your employer cannot force you into silence or prevent you from attaining justice.
Employers are responsible for taking proactive measures to prevent and address hostile work environments. This includes establishing policies and procedures that prohibit harassment, discrimination, and retaliation based on protected characteristics.
Employers with five or more employees are required by law to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees. This training must be provided every two years, and it covers the recognition and prevention of workplace harassment.
Employers must establish a clear process for employees to report incidents of harassment, discrimination, or other workplace issues. They should take all complaints seriously and conduct thorough and impartial investigations when complaints are made.
Employers should handle all complaints and investigations with confidentiality to protect the privacy of those involved. Information related to the investigation should be shared only with individuals directly involved in the process.
Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who make good faith complaints about workplace harassment or discrimination. Retaliation can include adverse actions such as termination, demotion, or negative performance reviews.
Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities to enable them to perform their job duties effectively, unless doing so would create undue hardship for the employer.
Employers must display workplace posters that inform employees of their rights and protections under state and federal employment laws, including information about harassment and discrimination.
Employers are required to maintain accurate and complete records related to employment, wages, and working conditions. These records should be kept for specified periods, as mandated by relevant labor laws.
Employers must comply with California’s wage and hour laws, including minimum wage requirements, overtime pay, meal and rest break regulations, and timely payment of wages.
Employers with 50 or more employees must provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) for specific family and medical reasons.
Employers cannot retaliate against employees who report violations of the law to a government or law enforcement agency.
Employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment for employees. This includes taking appropriate measures to prevent workplace accidents and ensuring compliance with occupational health and safety regulations.
*This list is not exhaustive. It’s essential for employers to stay informed about changes in employment laws and regulations in California to ensure ongoing compliance with their responsibilities and obligations.
Failing to meet these obligations can result in legal consequences and reputational damage for the employer.
Both federal and state laws provide protections for employees subject to hostile working environments. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination and harassment in the workplace associated with what is legally known as an employee’s protected class. Protected classes include age, religion, gender, sex, marital status, color, national origin, disability, religion and other categories.
Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), it is illegal for workers to face discrimination or harassment at work due to any of the protected characteristics listed by the law. If you are being treated poorly at work because you are a member of a legally protected class, you may be in a hostile work environment. FEHA also prohibits employers from refusing to take any action to address workplace harassment.
To prove a hostile work environment and have a successful claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate the following scenarios:
If you believe you may have a hostile work environment claim, you should maintain a record of all oppressive and abusive incidents you observe at work. Include the time, location, date, and whether anyone witnessed it.
If possible, have others in the workplace observe you telling the offender to stop their behavior. Report abusive behavior to the appropriate department at work so that they can try to fix it. Your employer can be held legally responsible if it has received a notice of the harassment but takes no action to stop it.
Ultimately, workplace harassment can be difficult to identify, as it can be either direct or indirect. In some cases, severe and targeted harassment occurs without targeting a protected class. As such, your best course of action is to work with an employment attorney who can review your case and determine whether you have a valid claim.
In California, if an employee believes they are experiencing a hostile work environment or facing workplace harassment, discrimination, or retaliation based on protected characteristics, they have the right to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
The DFEH is the state agency responsible for enforcing California’s anti-discrimination and harassment laws.
Apart from filing complaints with the DFEH, employees who face a hostile work environment in California have other legal avenues and resources to consider.
It’s crucial for employees to be aware of their rights and the available resources when facing a hostile work environment or other workplace-related problems. Seeking appropriate legal remedies can help employees protect their rights and work towards fostering a more inclusive and respectful work environment in California.
Filing a valid hostile work environment claim is worth it. You should absolutely take legal action if your employer does nothing to fix the harassment and discrimination that you or a colleague are experiencing at work.
Once you have placed an employer on notice, they are obligated to make attempts to remedy the issue. If they refuse or take no action, then your best next step is to pursue a claim with the assistance of a Los Angeles employment attorney.
The legal consequences for a person or business held liable for hostile workplace harassment can be severe. Employers may be legally obligated to reimburse victims of harassment for any of the following damages, among others:
This list includes some of the most common damages awarded in hostile work environment claims. Punitive damages apply to cases where the offender’s conduct was particularly egregious. Depending on the details of your individual case, other damages may apply.
When a worker makes the decision to sue their employer, a coworker, or a supervisor for violating state harassment laws, they must first file a formal written complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). If you are pursuing a claim involving workplace harassment, you may be unable to go straight to court without this important step.
In California, workplace harassment is treated as a form of discrimination. The process for filing harassment claims with the DFEH is the same as the process for filing a discrimination complaint with the agency. If your claim is still not resolved after your complaint has been filed with the DFEH, the agency will issue you a document known as a right-to-sue letter which will allow you to introduce a lawsuit.
Keep in mind that there are strict deadlines when pursuing relief for workplace harassment claims. Employees have just one year from the date of the violation to file a complaint against their employer. Employees who have gone through the process and received right-to-sue documents have one year to file a lawsuit in civil court against their employer.
If you are concerned that your claim may be time-barred, you should speak with an employment lawyer immediately. An experienced employment attorney can review the details of your claim and make sure that your case adheres to all appropriate deadlines.
Know that when you report a hostile working environment, you might be seeking relief for several others apart from yourself without even knowing it. Workplace harassers often target more than one person with their offensive and discriminatory conduct.
Neither you nor your coworkers deserve to be subjected to continual harassment or discrimination from an offender at work. Luckily, you do not have to suffer in silence as there are legal options and remedies available.
If you would like to file a hostile work environment claim, then you will need the assistance and counsel of an experienced employment law attorney. Your attorney can review your situation and determine whether you qualify for relief, as well as assist you in gathering all the evidence of the discrimination and harassment taking place in your work environment.
Hostile work environment cases are often based on evidence, so it is important to have someone on your side who understands this process and can ensure that your case has all the information it needs to be as strong as possible.
The right employment lawyer will maximize what you could receive in compensation. If you reside in the Los Angeles area and believe that you may have a valid hostile work environment claim or have any questions about your situation, you should contact LawLinq as soon as possible.
LawLinq can connect you with a highly reputable Los Angeles hostile work environment lawyer who will help you attain the justice and compensation that you rightfully deserve. Our member attorneys are certified by the California State Bar and are equipped with the knowledge, experience, and qualifications that you need to succeed in your hostile work environment case.
We have a large network of lawyers in the Los Angeles area across many different practice areas so that we can match you with someone specialized in cases like yours.
LawLinq makes it easy to find a Los Angeles hostile work environment attorney quickly by providing you with all the information you need to get started on your claim in one place. With LawLinq, you do not have to waste time searching online or speaking with multiple people to get the legal services you need.
Remember, our services are at no cost or obligation to you. If you reside in the Los Angeles area and suspect that you may have a hostile work environment claim, let us know today. LawLinq can serve as your link to top employment attorneys in Los Angeles.