All workers should be comfortable in the workplace and be able to concentrate on their jobs. Such an environment benefits both employers and employees. So, U.S. law provides remedies to workers who must endure a hostile environment. What is the legal definition of a hostile environment in Illinois?
As a preliminary matter, it is important to discuss what a hostile environment is not. As long as no one is physically injured, one or two incidents, such as sexually-explicit computer wallpaper, do not constitute a hostile environment. The same thing applies to sporadic conduct, like the hazing of new nurses each spring.
Elements of a Hostile Environment in Chicago
There is no magic number in terms of incidents, but the conduct must be ongoing. Furthermore, the conduct must be severe enough that the employee cannot perform essential job functions. Specifically, the elements are:
- Protected Class: The ongoing misconduct must be directed at women, non-white individuals, non-English speakers, people over 40, or some other protected class. So, the aforementioned nurse hazing example may not even qualify, assuming that not all the nurses were women.
- Pervasive Conduct: If the conduct is pervasive enough that the complaining worker feels s/he must avoid certain people or certain places, and these people or places are integral parts of the job, there may be a hostile environment complaint.
- Failure to Investigate: The aggrieved employee should report the conduct to management. If management does nothing or does not do enough to fully remedy the situation, outside legal action is probably necessary.
- Severity: This element can take two forms. First, as mentioned, the conduct can make it difficult to perform essential job functions. Second, the conduct can interfere with career advancement opportunities.
If the employee follows the steps involved in bringing a hostile environment complaint to the attention of management, the law imputes knowledge to ownership, regardless of actual knowledge or lack thereof.
Procedure in a Chicago Hostile Environment Claim
Some bullying, harassment, and general unpleasantness are almost inevitable at work. If this conduct gets to the point that it interferes with your daily job routine, you are probably working in a hostile environment. One key portion of a hostile environment claim is that it must involve a protected class. If the bullying has nothing do do with race, gender, or something else, there is probably no legal complaint, no matter how bad the conduct is.
A worker must first go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if management does nothing about a hostile environment. The EEOC is a rather small agency with limited resources. So, agents often do not investigate cases that do not involve crystal-clear evidence of wrongdoing and/or the potential for large damages. If the EEOC passes on the case, the aggrieved employee may partner with an attorney.
Damages in an employment discrimination action usually include compensation for both economic losses, such as lost wages and noneconomic losses, such as emotional distress.
Reach Out to a Savvy Attorney
You have the right to peace and calm at work that allows you to do your job. For a free consultation with an experienced employment law attorney in Chicago, contact the Law Office of Mitchell A. Kline. After-hours appointments are available.