Angry boss scolding or firing upset intern in office

What Are An Employer’s Responsibilities in Preventing a Hostile Work Environment?

By Douglas Lipsky

Employers play a crucial role in fostering a safe, healthy, and productive work environment free from harassment. A paramount aspect of this responsibility involves preventing a hostile work environment. Employers that fail to do so can be held liable, and victims have a right to take legal action. 

The best way for employers and employees to understand their rights and obligations is to consult an experienced employment law attorney. Let’s take a look a how employers can prevent a hostile work environment and what employees can do about it. 

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is defined by repeated, severe, or pervasive negative actions or behavior that interfere with an individual’s work performance or create an intimidating, offensive, or abusive work atmosphere. Here are some examples:

  • Unwanted sexual advances, comments, or jokes
  • Insults, slurs, or derogatory remarks about an individual or a group
  • Intimidation, threats, or physical violence
  • Sabotaging someone’s work or giving unjust negative performance reviews

Hostile work environment is often thought of in terms of sexual harassment, but this is not always the case. Regardless of how it arises, a hostile work environment is an unlawful form of discrimination based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 

Federal and New York Laws that Prohibit Hostile Work Environments

Both federal and New York laws explicitly prohibit hostile work environments. At the Federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act all lay down strong prohibitions against workplace harassment.

In New York, protections are even more expansive. The New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law go further than federal laws by covering smaller employers and offering broader protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and status as a victim of domestic violence, among other characteristics. 

Despite these legal protections, a hostile environment can arise when employers fail to provide employees with an environment free of harassment and discrimination. 

Steps Employers Must Take To Prevent A Hostile Work Environment

To prevent a hostile work environment, employers need to create clear and comprehensive anti-harassment policies, which should:

  • Define what constitutes workplace harassment
  • Set out clear procedures for reporting harassment
  • Assure confidentiality to the extent possible
  • Guarantee that there will be no retaliation against complainants
  • Outline the disciplinary measures for perpetrators

Moreover, employers should regularly conduct anti-harassment training, actively enforce their policies, and promptly address any complaints that arise. Regular workplace audits can also help identify issues before they escalate.

How Employees Can Fight Back

If you are dealing with a hostile work environment, don’t suffer in silence. Consult with an employment lawyer who can guide you through filing a formal complaint and, if necessary, taking legal action against your employer.

An employment lawyer can help you gather evidence, navigate the legal complexities, and safeguard your rights. They can also act as your advocate in negotiations or court, helping to secure a settlement or verdict in your favor.

The Takeaway

When it comes to a hostile work environment, employer liability isn’t just a moral obligation; it’s a legal one. By understanding your rights and the mechanisms for enforcement, you can help ensure a safe, respectful, and productive workplace for all. Contact an employment attorney if you need assistance in navigating this complex issue.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.