We likely have the phrase “hostile work environment” to thank for the all too common misunderstanding that hostility in the workplace is, in and of itself, a violation of law. There is no federal law prohibiting bullying in the workplace. Likewise, while many state legislatures have considered laws to prevent bullying in the workplace, there are no laws of general applicability currently in effect that prevent bullying in the workplace. So, what does a hostile work environment mean and why is it illegal? A hostile work environment refers to a very specific type of bullying that is targeted at a person due to their protected characteristics and can be a violation of antidiscrimination laws. A manager who is an equal opportunity jerk does not create the kind of hostile work environment that would be actionable in a lawsuit. Having said that, bullying in the workplace may well violate internal employer policies relating to civility in the workplace and typically inhibits productivity, so employers should not ignore bullying. Moreover, instances of bullying can be manifestations of unlawful discrimination and should be addressed.
Savvy employer takeaways: Employers ignore reports of bullying at their own peril because such conduct, at a minimum, may interfere with productivity and may be an indicator of discrimination. Nonetheless, just because an employee cannot get along with his/her supervisor does not create a legal claim for a hostile work environment, even if the supervisor is abrasive.