Hostile Work Environment

Have you been accused of creating a hostile work environment at your university or college? Whether the claim stems from an alleged failure to report sexual misconduct or from specific alleged discriminatory harassment, this sort of claim can have cascading ramifications for your career. If you work at a university or college, chances are you've worked really hard to get there, and that makes a hostile work environment accusation all the more serious. An experienced attorney-advisor can help you navigate your college or university's hearing procedure and also provide guidance if claims arise that are beyond the school's purview.

What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?

Often, the phrase “hostile work environment” is tossed around without actually understanding what it signifies. If a supervisor uses pejorative language once or twice, or picks on an employee because they are late to work once, that is not necessarily a hostile work environment. If someone's feelings are hurt once by a side comment, that is not a hostile work environment necessarily. So what is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment at a university can occur as a direct result of the behavior or actions of coworkers, department chairs, provosts, supervisors, and anyone else that an individual interacts with on the job. The conduct must be such that the work environment is offensive, hostile, or intimidating. For a work environment to classify as a hostile work environment, several conditions must be met.

For harassment to constitute a hostile work environment, the unwelcome behavior must be based on the victim's protected status. This stems from the EEOC’s guidelines, which state that harassment includes any unwelcome conduct based on “race, color, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” Secondly, it must be objectively “severe, persistent, and pervasive” such that a “reasonable person” would find the work environment hostile or abusive. Several factors help determine whether or not conduct classifies as severe, persistent, and pervasive. Some of them are:

  • The nature and severity of the conduct in question
  • The degree to which the conduct interfered with someone's work or educational performance
  • Whether the conduct was humiliating
  • Whether the conduct was physically threatening
  • The effect of the conduct on the person's emotional, mental, or psychological wellbeing
  • The frequency, type, and duration of the conduct
  • The relationship between the individuals involved

What Types of Conduct Fall Into This Category?

There are two types of conduct at universities and colleges that often fall into the category of a hostile work environment investigation or hearing. The first is Hostile Work Environment harassment and is dependent on actions rendering the workplace environment intimidating, offensive, or hostile. We will explore much of the specifics of the hostile work environment below.

The second category is Quid Pro Quo, or “This for That” Harassment. Quid pro quo harassment usually involves a supervisor or instructor who has the power to impact someone's studies or career. Most frequently, it occurs in instances where a tangible effect on employment or studies rests on an individual's acceptance or rejection of the supervisor or professor's sexual advances. It also sometimes occurs when someone must participate in religious celebrations or activities as a requirement of employment.

What Are Some Examples of Behaviors That Might Contribute to a Hostile Work Environment?

In any case of harassment, the parties involved may be of the same sex or a different sex. Generally, behaviors that involve mockery, intimidation, insults, offensive images or gestures, and contribute to interfering with someone's work performance or studies can be looked to as connected to a hostile work environment at a university or college. There are several more specific examples of behavior that paint broad strokes of potentially problematic behavior at a university or college. Here's an overview of some of them.

  • Commenting on physical attributes
  • Unnecessary touching
  • Crude language
  • Sabotaging the individual's work or tenure process
  • Using indecent gestures
  • Using demeaning or inappropriate epithets
  • Engaging in hostile physical behavior
  • Telling off-color jokes that involve race, disability, or other protected classes
  • Discussing sexual activities

The person filing the claim may not be the individual who was experiencing the harassment. It can be anybody who was impacted by the conduct listed above.

What About Employer Liability?

In instances where a supervisor's behaviors created a hostile work environment for an employee, an employer will be considered responsible (and liable) unless they can prove two things.

First, they must demonstrate that they (the employer) took decisive action to correct the harassing actions and behavior. This usually involves documentation of some sort. The second thing that an employer must prove is that either the employee failed to utilize the employer-provided opportunities (such as reporting to HR), or that the supervisor's supervisor made a “reasonable attempt” to correct or prevent the harassing behavior.

What Are The Associated Consequences?

If you work in higher education and have been accused of creating a hostile work environment, there is potential fallout that can affect not only your immediate employment but also the trajectory of your career in academia. Whether you're new to higher ed or you've been working in the field for years, you know that the tenured positions at universities and colleges are few and far between and that the path to acquiring them is not easy. The process can take years upon years, once you've found a school that is the right match for your research or teaching interests.

If you have been accused of creating a hostile work environment, the many years of schooling, the time working toward tenure, even potential sabbaticals, are all at risk. Often there are other benefits of working at a college, such as free or subsidized education for your children. That means that these sorts of allegations carry with them the potential implication of affecting not only your professional wellbeing but also your financial wellbeing and that of your family members. The risk can be even greater if the accusations include any sort of sexual misconduct, especially with the focus on the #metoo movement that continues today.

What Defenses Are Available?

If you are a professor and an employee or student has accused you of harassment in the workplace, you also have rights. It's essential to not lash out at the person who's made a claim and that you stay professional and calm in your interactions (which should be limited) with them. It's always wise to consult with an attorney-advisor who can assist you in the hearing process at your university or college.

It's important that you understand that the burden of proof in these claims rests with the alleged victim. Innocent remarks and jokes can be misunderstood and even misconstrued as harassment, especially in our current environment. Many careers and lives have been severely damaged or ruined by a rush to presume guilt. 

An attorney-advisor will assist you in creating a game plan, as long as you inform them of all the details. They'll also be able to evaluate the credibility of the person who has made a claim. 

If the claim is an alleged quid pro quo claim, then the harassment can be found based on a single incident. Otherwise, in general, a hostile work environment claim needs to demonstrate that it was over a period of time and that the behavior demonstrated a pattern.

How Can An Attorney-Advisor Help?

An attorney-advisor can help you navigate whatever action is occurring at your university or college. Whether you are a department head or a cafeteria worker, you deserve to have someone fight on your behalf. Legally, an attorney advisor can help craft a case that looks at whether or not the conduct would be considered offensive by a reasonable person. They can also gather evidence for you that determines your intention during the alleged incident(s).

An attorney-advisor will have your back when it comes to a defense against a hostile work environment. Your university or college will want to protect their liability, so they may even rush to settle the concerns quickly, and sometimes due diligence suffers as a result. An attorney-advisor of your own will have your best interests at heart and fight to ensure that you are afforded your right to innocence until proven guilty. 

An Experienced Attorney As Your Hostile Work Environment Advisor

Joseph D. Lento has fought on behalf of hundreds of clients facing similar accusations at colleges and universities across the United States, and he always places his clients' rights first. If you're facing hostile work environment accusations, you want to make sure that you address it head-on, with an experienced and driven attorney-advisor who will fight for your rights and help mitigate the allegations and potential consequences. You've worked hard to get to your position at your university or college and you cannot afford to have your time and effort go to waste. Protect your future. Call the Lento Law firm today at 888-535-3686, or contact us online.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact our offices today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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