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Avoid Costly Litigation by Preventing Claims of a Hostile Work Environment

Avoid Costly Litigation by Preventing Claims of a Hostile Work Environment

#512attorney #LynchLaw Feb. 14, 2023

When toxic behavior in the workplace creates a hostile atmosphere, targeted employees are often subjected to incidents of unwelcome conduct over prolonged periods of time. According to various work-related studies conducted by universities and corporations across the county, approximately 20% of all employees say they have experienced a hostile work environment during the course of their careers. The most common behaviors cited in claims regarding a hostile work environment involve sexual harassment, discrimination, verbal abuse, or bullying. When the actions of an employee harms another employee, and violates the law, the victim may have grounds to pursue legal action. Employers who allow employees to behave in a manner that creates a hostile work environment may eventually have to bear the expense of defending themselves in a court of law. 

How a Hostile Work Environment Can Damage an Organization

The results can be costly when an employer allows a hostile work environment to erode their organization's functionality. In addition to dealing with expenses associated with a lawsuit, the company could also be faced with regulatory penalties and fines. Costs that are attributed to employees taking time off can also become an issue.  Employers can expect production levels to decline when employees call in sick because they cannot bear having to work in a toxic environment with unpleasant colleagues. Hostile work environments also contribute to low morale, and companies experience a loss of talent when employees seek other opportunities. Employees must be replaced with new workers when they resign, and employers must bear the costs of having new workers onboarded and trained. And finally, employees’ claims of a hostile work environment may ultimately mean the employer will have to address the issue of a tarnished reputation. Companies that have allowed a toxic culture to flourish will have to work to repair the damage and restore their good name. 

How Should Employers Respond to Complaint That Alleges a Hostile Work Environment 

When an employer receives a hostile work environment complaint from an employee, management must take immediate action to protect themselves and the company. Their first step is to take the complaint seriously. Suppose the complainant believes the employer was aware of the stressful environment but chose to ignore it. In that case, the employer's perceived lack of concern or the mishandling of the report could result in litigation. To reduce the likelihood of legal action, the employer should provide their staff with a safe method of reporting any issues they are experiencing with a colleague. Employees must be allowed to feel safe when discussing workplace issues and feel confident that their complaints will be taken seriously by those in charge. 

The Importance of Implementing a Safe Reporting System 

To accomplish the implementation of a safe reporting system, employers should consider the following:

  • Develop various systems and methods that allow employees to report issues in the workplace safely. 

  • Train those on the leadership teams to recognize the signs of a hostile work environment. 

  • Protect the victim and the company by responding to the issue before escalation. 

The U.S. Labor Department's Definition of a Hostile Work Environment

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a hostile work environment is defined as "unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive." When an employee feels they are being harassed or discriminated against due to their gender, sexual orientation, national origin, race, religion, age, or disability, the unwelcome conduct can result in an employee who feels uncomfortable, frightened, or intimidated.  

Some of the toxic behaviors that can contribute to a hostile work environment include:

  • Harassment

  • Bullying 

  • Discrimination

  • Toxic competition

  • Violence

  • Stalking

  • Threats

  • Lack of psychological safety

Discrimination According to Title V11

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from discrimination in the workplace based on specific protected classes. These protected classes include:

  • Race

  • Religion

  • Ethnicity

  • Color

  • National origin

  • Gender

  • Sex

  • Sexual orientation

  • Pregnancy

  • Physical and mental disabilities 

Is Hostile Work Environment Just an Unpleasant Place to Work?

A common misconception among many individuals is that a hostile work environment is just a miserable workplace. Employers who unpleasantly treat members of their staff are indeed short-sighted because the mistreatment of subordinates by their superiors not only creates a depressing workplace but also reduces morale, diminishes productivity, and increases turnover. Unfortunately, however, having an unpleasant boss, unhappy coworkers, and an unwelcoming workplace is not illegal. For a work environment to be determined illegally hostile, the toxic behavior must be extreme and disruptive enough to impact the employee's productivity. So, when does the bad behavior inherent in a hostile environment in the workplace transition from legal to illegal?

When is Hostile Behavior in the Workplace Illegal? 

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the issue must meet specific legal criteria to be considered a hostile work environment. A workplace is considered hostile when: 

  • Unwelcome conduct, or harassment, is based on race, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, age, disability, or genetics.

  • Harassment is continued and long-lasting.

  • Conduct is severe enough to make the environment intimidating, offensive, or abusive.

The Courts Will Consider All the Evidence

When an employee files a claim against an employer alleging a hostile work environment, the court will rule based on the circumstances, the evidence, and the range of factors that led to the claim. To warrant legal action, the toxic behavior that has created a hostile work environment must be severe and unwelcome.

Severity

Legal matters regarding allegations of a hostile work environment allow the court to act with discretion. Although the term "severe" is subjective, the judge will rule based on the ongoing severity of the situation. The judge must determine if the injurious behavior of the offending person in the workplace was significant enough to affect the targeted employee's productivity. A court may consider the victim's attendance to gauge the severity level. Did a once productive employee suddenly begin to avoid the workplace by calling in sick or asking to work remotely? Did this employee suddenly miss deadlines, skip meetings, or produce lower-quality work? Did the employee withdraw from contact with others in the organization and become negative or isolating? 

Unwelcome Behavior

The incident must also be unwelcome to be considered hostile. For an action to be deemed undesirable, the victim must feel the behavior was offensive, unpleasant, or inappropriate. The unwelcome conduct must also have hurt the employee's well-being. In a hostile work environment, the victim must prove that they asked the hostile individual to cease. If the targeted employee submits a forma report to the human resources department or sends an email sent to the hostile individual, these actions will usually provide the evidence needed by the courts.

How Can Employers Prevent a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment can result from the words and actions of any person within the organization that negatively or severely impacts another employee's ability to perform their tasks. Anyone within the company can be responsible for creating a hostile work environment.

The company should use various methods to prevent toxic behavior from occurring within the organization. 

·       Offering prevention training modules to address the company's no-tolerance rules for bullying, harassment, and discrimination. 

·       Implementing additional training for leadership teams to help them recognize and address workplace toxicity.

·       Encouraging the management team to model and exhibit positive behaviors.

·       Building and strengthening coworker relationships by implementing professional team-building exercises.

·       Develop a company-wide code of conduct that addresses the importance of respectful behavior in the workplace.

·       Enforcing these policies consistently throughout the organization. 

·       Including an ethical behaviors section in your employee handbook.

·       Holding your company accountable to your ethical standards by publishing your policies online.

·       Surveying all employees annually to identify problem areas within your organization and culture.

Management's Responsibility to Monitor 

The key to creating healthy workplace relationships is to promote awareness and communication. Power imbalances and inadequate communication skills within any industry can manifest in conflict. Management's consistent monitoring of a company’s social health and well-being requires constant attention. Monitoring can be challenging when those in charge often do not collaborate closely with employees, and they do not witness hostile behaviors between staff members. Companies that take the necessary steps to create a culture of respect and teamwork often find their actions result in employee retention, healthy and relationships between colleagues. 

What is the Best Way to Address Hostility in the Workplace?

Employers are wise to develop a reputation for being strong, ethical, and compassionate by creating a no-tolerance policy for workplace misconduct. Companies can exhibit the strength of their leadership by setting a solid example for others in the workplace and in their industry. Not only can employers minimize the likelihood lawsuits, but they can also establish a reputation as an employer who has created a company with a capable and responsible management team. And what a great way for an organization to attract and retain the professional talent they need to thrive.

How Organizations Can Protect Themselves

Companies can protect themselves from claims filed by employees regarding a hostile work environment by following specific guidelines. Under federal discrimination laws, employers who become aware of alleged workplace discrimination and harassment are required to investigate the matter and take prompt and effective remedial action. The Lynch Law Firm has experience assisting businesses by conducting timely and confidential investigations and developing policies to include in your organization's employee handbook. 

Protect Your Organization by Offering Sexual Harassment Training

In addition to helping to create a safer and more respectful work environment, employers should note that harassment prevention training can also serve as a defense to a sexual harassment claim if an issue is filed with the court. Employers should conduct prevention training sessions at least once annually. To ensure employee compliance, employers or their human resource departments should collect a signed acknowledgment form from each employee to confirm they have completed the course.

The Lynch Law Firm Offers Harassment Prevention Training Modules

In 2023, the Lynch Law Firm expanded its services by offering a new training platform for employers. Consistent with EEOC guidelines, federal and state laws, and judicial expectations, the firm’s customized training course was created to stop harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Our interactive courses are designed to protect companies while helping nurture a workplace culture where employees feel safe and respected. While the platform also includes ongoing micro-learnings to reinforce the education, what makes this training unique in the marketplace is that it is affordable, customized, and judicially acceptable.

Our Training Modules are Customized to Your Needs 

About 80 % of our training program is standard, which means it adheres to state and federal laws. The remaining 20% is customized to your organization in precisely the ways the courts expect. When companies use a standard, one-size-fits-all video, it will not be very effective, and judges are aware of that. The courts realize that generic training indicates a lack of intent to prevent harassment. The Lynch Law Firm’s discrimination and harassment prevention training course goes beyond covering the laws that govern anti-discrimination and anti-harassment. Our training strategy is designed to raise awareness, encourage positive behavior in the workplace, and support an environment that is diverse, inclusive, and free from harassment."

Call the Lynch Law Firm for Help Now

Natalie Lynch is one of Austin's foremost labor and employment attorneys and the founding member of the Lynch Law Firm. She established the firm over ten years ago but has decades of experience in law. In addition to helping her clients resolve legal matters pertaining to employment law, she is

a credentialed investigator and dispute resolution mediator with many years of experience working with organizations to help minimize employment risk factors. She is the only consulting and credentialed investigator in Central Texas who conducts third-party investigations into allegations of harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment, and other issues. Natalie and her team specialize in workplace investigations and work to promote human dignity in the work environment. 

The Lynch Law Firm Focuses on Prevention and Education

A sizable portion of the Lynch Law Firm's practice is associated with prevention and education. Natalie Lynch said she likes having the opportunity to educate her clients because she can set high expectations and show employers why the legal requirements to spend money to ensure a healthy workplace are worth the cost. Natalie says, "Employers have a legal obligation to investigate workplace discrimination and harassment issues. Many organizations hire professional and credentialed investigators to help resolve these matters, establish a foundation for healthier workplaces, and avoid costly litigation." In addition to investigative work and helping clients work through conflicts in the workplace, the firm also provides services that include the creation of partner and employee agreements and building or reviewing company policies and procedures, 

The Lynch Law Firm is Here to Address Your Legal Issue

Labor and employment matters arise in all types of businesses and industries. The Lynch Law Firm's team of attorneys is equipped with the resources, experience, and knowledge to help you resolve your legal matter. In addition to representing individuals and businesses in various labor and employment matters, we can also assist you in creating an office romance policy, an office romance agreement, or developing an employee handbook. The attorneys at the Lynch Law Firm can also help you develop performance evaluation materials and draft enforceable employment contracts and legal agreements that address issues that include non-disclosure, non-competition, severance, and separation. 

The Lynch Law Firm's Clients Include:

  • Individuals

  • Limited Liability Companies

  • Corporations

  • Limited partnerships

  • Sole proprietorships

  • Family businesses

  • Investors

  • Beneficiaries

  • Vendors

  • Suppliers

  • Consultants

  • Professionals

  • Government Entities

About the Lynch Law Firm 

The Lynch Law Firm has an entire team of legal professionals to oversee its labor and employment clients. In addition to Natalie, the firm's founder and managing member, the firm includes an associate attorney, Brian Levy, who handles employment litigation matters. Additional employment professionals at the firm are Dr. Lindsey Lee and Helen Petty. Dr. Lee works on adult learning, investigations, and culture projects, and Ms. Petty works with nonprofit organizations.

The Lynch Law Firm Will Navigate Your Legal Matter from Inception to Resolution 

If you are an employer with a labor and employment law issue, the Lynch Law Firm has the resources to help you find a resolution. The attorneys at the Lynch Law Firm team can also assist you in developing the following:

  • Workplace Investigations

  • Harassment Prevention Training Modules

  • Employee Manuals

  • Performance Evaluation Materials

  • Employment Contracts

  • Legal Agreements for non-disclosure, non-compete, and severance. 

Schedule a Consultation with the Lynch Law Firm Now

If you are an employer working to resolve a labor and employment matter, and you would like to discuss your issue, call the Lynch Law Firm for help now. Protect yourself, your employees, and your business by contacting us at the Lynch Law Firm now. Our lawyers can help you navigate the complexities of your legal issue from inception to resolution. Contact us for help, or call us at (512) 298-2346.