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Your work environment may be unpleasant, contentious or outright awful — but it may not be legally considered a “hostile environment.” A hostile work environment has a specific meaning under the law that has to be met for you to have a claim against your employer.

Hostile work environments are created whenever all of the following are true:

  • You are subjected to discriminatory behavior due to gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability or another category protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
  • The behavior is chronic or pervasive, not just a “one-off” remark or action.
  • The investigative response from the company has been inadequate to address the issue.
  • The behavior seriously disrupts your ability to function at work or impedes your career in some way.

That means that having a terrible boss who is just indiscriminately abusive to everyone likely wouldn’t be considered a hostile work environment, but a situation where a terrible boss is abusive only to certain people based on some prejudice could be.

A hostile work environment may be caused by things like:

  • Lewd or obscene comments, “jokes,” suggestions or behavior
  • The use of racially-offensive slurs, racial stereotyping or other derogatory racial remarks
  • Intimidation or negative comments toward someone’s religious beliefs
  • Comments or slurs regarding someone’s disability or medical accommodations

If you’re uncertain whether or not you’re being subjected to a legally hostile work environment, the wise thing to do is to consult with an experienced employment law attorney about your situation. The nuances of the law surrounding a hostile work environment mean that each situation has to be judged for itself — and it’s hard to cast an objective eye on a situation when you’re in the middle of it.