What To Do If You’re in a Hostile Work Environment

Work is a reality for most Americans. Most people go to work so they have money to pay their bills, support their family and afford luxuries. Work is a necessity, but in some ways it’s also a right. It’s the means most of us use to reach self-fulfillment, achieve our potential and make our mark in the world.

In America, it’s commonly understood that no one can stand in your way if you want to work your way to the top. However, you might run into a situation that makes it seem impossible to get a raise or a promotion or even to keep doing your job to the best of your ability. In cases where an employer is refusing to remedy the situation, you can file a claim with an employment attorney to help you.

hostile work situations

Employee Rights in the Workplace

If you know anything about the history of employment in the US, you’re familiar with stories of terrible working conditions, long hours and low pay. Over the course of several decades, the law stepped in to protect employees from abuse and unreasonable working conditions. Today, every American employee is afforded protections under federal and state law.

As an employee, your rights are protected by law, including:

  • Your right to be free from harassment and discrimination. No one in your workplace, whether they represent your employer or are your co-workers, can harass you at work. Your employer or supervisor cannot discriminate against you when it comes to promotions, raises or any other benefits of your job. Each employee must be treated equally under the rules and policies of the company.

treating employees equally

  • Your right to fair wages. Your employer must pay you at a reasonable rate for the work you do. You cannot be expected to perform any work for free, and your pay cannot be withheld or unlawfully taxed by your employer.
  • Your right to privacy. This includes your right to maintain control of your private possessions at work like your handbag or briefcase. You’re also entitled to the privacy of your personal email and phone calls. Your right to privacy is protected by law even before you become an employee. Your credit and background cannot be investigated without your permission during the hiring process.
  • Your right to a safe work environment. Your employer is required to provide you with a work environment that is free of dangerous conditions. Safety equipment and standards must be provided and monitored, so you can perform your work with a reasonable expectation of safety.

In an effort to establish and protect the rights of employees across the country, we have federal regulations. These are the federal laws that apply to employee-employer relations:

  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act. This Act only applies to workplaces with 20 or more employees. It protects older workers from discrimination in hiring and promotion practices. It applies to employees who are 40 years old or older, but does not protect younger workers from discrimination.
  • Americans With Disabilities Act. This Act protects people with qualified disabilities or mental or physical impairments that cause major limitations in life activities. Employers cannot discriminate against people who are able to perform job functions with a reasonable amount of accommodation. 
  • Title VII. Employers are prohibited from discriminating based on race, color, sex, nationality or religion in the hiring process. This regulation only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. 
  • Family and Medical Leave Act. This Act applies to employees who have worked 12 months and 1,250 hours for the same employer preceding their requested leave time. Such qualifying employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of medical leave. The employer must hold the employee’s position open for the length of the leave. 
  • Fair Labor Standards Act. The legal length of the workweek and required breaks is set by this Act. It also sets the rate of fair wages and determines overtime requirements.

Employers are required to comply with federal regulations. In states where the state regulations are more stringent than the federal ones, employers must comply with state regulations. In most states, additional regulations are put in place to clarify or strengthen the federal ones. State regulations also fill in the gaps where federal regulations do not exist.

Hostile Work Environment Laws

Every employee has the right to a safe work environment that does not impede them from performing duties and pursuing prosperity. This doesn’t mean that work has to be easy or physically comfortable. Some jobs are demanding, both physically and mentally. Working in a hostile environment, however, is not acceptable under federal or state law.

There are several ways to define a hostile work environment. It’s a subjective condition based on what the employee may determine is uncomfortable. The legal definition, however, is the only one that applies when it comes to hostile work environment claims.

A hostile work environment, which is prohibited by law, is one that is intimidating or offensive. It’s usually created by harassment that is discriminatory and on-going. When an employee is bullied or harassed based on his race, religion, sex, color, nationality, age or disability, a hostile work environment exists, even if other employees do not feel intimidated.

A hostile work environment might be created by another employee and not directly by the employer. The employer, however, has a responsibility to resolve the situation. One employee may experience a hostile environment when the other employees do not.

An uncomfortable workplace becomes illegal when the harassment that one or more employees experience becomes a condition of continued employment and the harassment is ongoing. Only when it is extremely severe is an isolated incident of harassment in the workplace considered a hostile work environment.

Here are some ways that harassment can be perpetrated in the workplace:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Threats
  • Physical assaults
  • Name calling
  • Work interruptions
  • Mocking
  • Racial or ethnic slurs
  • Insults
  • Epithets
  • Offensive pictures

Harassment in the workplace can be carried out in a number of different scenarios. It is not always the employer assaulting the employee. Sometimes the harassment is between two employees. At times, the harassment is unintentional, but it can still rise to the level of illegality.

How to Handle a Hostile Work Environment

Recognizing a hostile work environment is important to claiming your rights under Pennsylvania law. Feeling uncomfortable at work should not force you to find a new job or give up your goal of being promoted. When you realize you are in a hostile work environment, however, you need to take action. Your employer will not necessarily recognize the situation and make the needed changes.

illegal workplace conditions

Follow this procedure if you find yourself in a hostile work environment:

  • Confront the offender. In general, the law allows for people to remedy a situation they have caused without penalty. You need to give the person causing your discomfort an opportunity to change his behavior. Speak to the offender privately about the offense you take to their comments, jokes or other offense. The offender may not realize that their words offend you, and when you bring it to their attention, they might change their behavior. Give them two chances to make a change before you go on to the next step.
  • Build a paper trail. Document the conversations you have with the offender, so you can easily quote date and time when necessary. Also, keep track of the offensive material, whether it’s delivered via email, postings on the employee bulletin board or comments made in your presence. Try to record the date and time as well as who was in the room and might have heard the comments.

paper trail of evidence

  • Go to management. If the condition continues, report it to the offender’s supervisor, your supervisor or the human resources department. Use your paper trail to calmly explain the extent of the problem. Be prepared for any retaliation from the offender, because they will likely be confronted about their behavior. Management should follow up with you once they investigate and try to stop the offensive behavior.
  • Seek help from a higher authority. If it’s an option, take your concern to your supervisor’s boss. If these steps do not end the offensive behavior, you may want to consult an attorney. Understand that if the behavior does not meet the threshold for hostile work environment, you may have no legal recourse and may be forced to make a decision about leaving your current job. A qualified labor attorney, however, can evaluate the situation and give you prudent advice.

It’s important to follow the above steps if you want to try to resolve a hostile work environment situation. If you take your complaint directly to an attorney, they will likely ask you if you have taken the steps. It may seem uncomfortable, but sometimes confronting the source of the harassment can put an end to it with one conversation.

Terminated Employee Requesting Personnel Files

Personnel files are another area of employment that is regulated by law. Employers are required to keep a file on each employee that contains certain information:

  • Workplace injuries
  • Accrued vacation time
  • Hours and wages
  • Medical leave
  • Tax withholdings

Public employers, the military and other government entities are strictly limited on the type of information they can keep in a personnel file. Private employers, however, are not at all restricted. Often, your personnel file becomes a repository for information in addition to what is listed above. Evaluations, references, and other subjective information can be kept in your personnel file, which makes these files particularly sensitive.

sensitive employee information

You may not know exactly what is in your personnel file. If you did, you might not want your next employer, your ex-spouse’s attorney or anyone else to have access to it. When you leave your company, whether you are fired or you quit, you may want to gain control of your personnel file to secure the sensitive information it might contain.

Sometimes a personnel file can give some indication as to why an employee was not promoted or was terminated. That information might be needed to prove that the employer is guilty of discrimination or some other unfair labor practices. It is not uncommon for a terminated employee or their attorney to want to review the personnel file.

Access to Personnel Files

Instead of restricting what can be kept in your personnel file, many states, like Pennsylvania, regulate who can access that file and under what circumstances. In Pennsylvania, there are requirements for accessing your personnel file:

  • Employees are allowed to see their personnel files no more frequently than once a year. This access applies to employees who are on a leave of absence and those who were laid off but have the possibility of being re-employed. Once a year, the employee’s agent is also entitled to review the personnel file. There are no provisions in the law for anyone else to gain access to your personnel file.
  • Requests to review your personnel file may be submitted in writing. At your employer’s discretion, they might require a written request. The request would indicate what parts of your file you’d like to review and for what purpose. If someone is reviewing your personnel file on your behalf, your signature is required to verify that person is acting as your agent.
  • Your review of your personnel file will most likely have to take place in the office where the files are housed. Your employer may require a company representative to be present for the review. They do not have to allow you to review your file during the course of your regular work day, and they do not have to make the file available to you outside of regular office hours.
  • Copying your employee personnel file can be prohibited. The law leaves this up to the employer’s discretion. You must be allowed, however, to take notes during your file review.
  • If you discover an error in your personnel file, you can petition the Bureau of Labor Standards for a hearing. Following that hearing, you may be permitted to insert a counter-statement into your file as a means of contradicting erroneous information.

There is no federal law that gives the right to review your personnel file to employees. For this specific purpose, we must turn to varying state laws. The regulations explained above apply to all employers in the state of Pennsylvania, but they may or may not be the same in other states.

Learn More

When it comes to emotional situations like identifying a hostile work environment, it is often wise to seek the impartial opinion of an attorney who is experienced in employment law. In Pennsylvania, a knowledgeable attorney at MWC can compare the facts of your situation to the state and federal laws that apply to determine if you have the basis for a claim.

Once one of our attorney confirms that you’re experiencing a hostile work environment we can assist you through the claims process. Give us a call, chat online or send us a message to get started.