Blatant discrimination and harassment at work is all too common, affecting people from all walks of life. This includes those who find themselves in a hostile work environment in Florida jobs. According to a CNBC report in 2017, as many as one in five U.S. workers report suffering from a hostile or threatening workplace.
Daily insults, threats, or obvious unfair treatment can make life pretty tough to bear. A hostile work environment naturally creates high levels of stress and can interfere with your productivity and success. Fortunately, in Florida and throughout the U.S., employees experiencing workplace hostility have legal protection and recourse.
If you find yourself enduring illegal treatment for any of a number of reasons, you can take steps to defend yourself and rectify the situation. You have a legal right to work in an atmosphere free from bias, harassment, and retaliation. Unfortunately, our employment law attorneys have seen too many employees who have experienced hostile work environments at their Florida employers.
Hostile Work Environment Defined
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces laws protecting employees who are subjected to “offensive conduct” as a condition of their employment. Under federal law, pervasive conduct creating a work environment that “a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive” is illegal. Any form of severe, ongoing workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, can create a hostile work environment for employees.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a worker on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Gender protections now include pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation. It is against Title VII for an employer to harass or disparage an employee for any of these reasons.
It is also illegal to harass a worker because they have complained, formally or informally, about discrimination and harassment. Retaliatory acts from an employer in response to a complaint also puts the employee in an uncomfortable, hostile work environment.
Types of Behavior That Constitute a Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment can be created by your boss, one or more coworkers, or someone you must work with through the business, such as a vendor or supplier. Discrimination, harassment, or retaliation might include any of the following behaviors:
- Offensive jokes
- Racial slurs
- Name calling
- Degrading comments, insults, put-downs
- Physical assault (including unwanted touching)
- Threats and intimidation
- Display of offensive pictures or objects
- Inappropriate romantic advances
- Unwarranted criticism or negative write-ups
- Disparate treatment, such as denied perks or favorable assignments given to similarly situated employees.
It’s important to understand that victims of a hostile work environment do not necessarily need to be individually targeted. You may be in a hostile environment if you are forced to continually witness offensive conduct as you go about your workday.
Whistleblowers and Retaliation
Many times, an employee who complains about illegal treatment in the workplace experiences retaliation from the employer in return. Suddenly, a situation that was difficult to accept accelerates into a full-blown hostile work environment. The business owner may go so far as to demote you, deny a promised raise, or even find an excuse to terminate your employment.
By law, employers are forbidden from retaliating against you if you complain about discrimination or related harassment, whether you mention it casually or file a lawsuit. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) whistleblower laws, employers must also refrain from retaliating against an employee who reports unsafe work conditions (as defined by the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
An additional form of retaliation can occur when an employer turns against a worker who has suffered an injury or extended illness. Some employees who file a Workers’ Compensation claim feel the wrath of a disgruntled employer. Others who exercise their right to FMLA leave return to find hostility and adverse treatment. This illegal retaliation creates a hostile work environment based upon an employee’s disability or legal pursuit of entitled benefits.
If you are the victim of retaliation after a complaint about discrimination or any type of illegal or unsafe work environment, you may have an employment law case. If you are fired (or are forced to quit), it may constitute wrongful termination.
Hostile Work Environment Cases
The #Metoo movement has provided a vivid illustration of the typical victim experience in a hostile work environment, bringing to light an unfortunately common scenario. Many employees of renowned companies have described an office culture of extreme abuse, including pervasive, blatant sexual harassment and even sexual assault. Women from all walks of life have reported similar experiences, describing employers who use their power to intimidate, coerce, and abuse employees. Each of these individuals has a potential employment law case, and many can anticipate significant settlements or jury awards.
In 2018, a New York jury awarded a sexual harassment victim $13.4 million, including $11.7 million in punitive damages. The woman had complained repeatedly about a hostile work environment involving sexual harassment, yet she got no relief from her employer.
Another hostile work environment was described in a 2016 case filed against UPS by eight African-American men. The men were subjected to severe racial harassment, including repeated slurs and name calling, and then suffered retaliation after complaining. They were awarded $5.3 million by a Kentucky jury.
High-dollar jury awards may be reduced on appeal, but employers know there is risk of substantial financial penalty and expensive litigation costs with these cases. For this reason, many cases end in a settlement without going to trial.
What to Do if You Find Yourself in a Hostile Work Environment in Florida
If you believe you are experiencing unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation at work, you should certainly report your concerns. If your direct supervisor is the one harassing you, you can let him or her know that the conduct is creating a hostile work environment for you, and request that it cease. If it does not stop, you can report the behavior to a higher level employee onsite or contact the corporate office.
If it is clear that the problem is going to continue, it is time to begin documenting the harassment. Any evidence of unlawful treatment should be documented. Be sure to keep saved copies of this documentation accessible at home, rather than just at work. Evidence can include:
- Emails sent and received
- Phone records
- Voice messages
- Handwritten notes
- Photographs of offensive material or unsafe working conditions
- Written evidence of safety violations
- Copies of performance reviews
- Your private journal entries
- Witness contact information.
It is also a good idea to write out a timeline of events as you remember them. This will help you to identify a clear pattern of behavior and refresh your memory for later.
Filing a Formal Complaint
With evidence to back your claims, you can put in a formal complaint with the EEOC, which has an office in Tampa. You must first file an inquiry using the Public Portal, after which an interview may be scheduled to discuss your case. If your claim seems to have merit, the EEOC will notify the employer and attempt to mediate the situation. They may also investigate the charge and provide you with official “Notice of Right to Sue” documents.
Whether or not you file an EEOC complaint, you can seek advice and representation from an employment law attorney. At Feldman Legal Group, we have been legal advocates for Florida and Georgia employees for over two decades. We have seen every type of hostile work environment, and every type of defense for inexcusable behavior. Our attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees, holding employers accountable, and ensuring fair treatment under the law.