Hostile Work Environment

What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment in California?

Generally, to be considered a victim of a hostile work environment in California, you have to have had exposure to repeated and severe offensive and inappropriate behavior or language by co-workers. There are many hostile work environment examples. For example, a person may be the target of hostility due to his or her gender, sexual orientation, national origin, ethnicity, race, or religion or age. A hostile work environment often occurs as a form of retaliation in response to a worker’s reporting of improper conduct, unsafe working conditions or complaints of labor code violations such as wage theft or overtime violations. Below, we define a hostile work environment. We also explain how to prove that this toxic environment exists and we offer help if you need it.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

California defines a hostile work environment as a workplace where inappropriate behavior is severe and pervasive enough to create an abusive and hostile atmosphere for workers. Oftentimes, the term “hostile work environment” is often associated with sexual harassment. However, it can also encompass other types of workplace discrimination. Some workers may face a hostile work environment due to one or more of the following:

  • Ethnicity
  • Religious beliefs
  • Pregnancy status
  • National origin
  • Age
  • Disability

Fortunately, workplace discrimination, including hostile work environment discrimination, is against California law. Employers may be running afoul of the Fair Employment and Housing Act by allowing a hostile work environment to persist.

Is a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?

Many people mistakenly believe that any hostility in the workplace is illegal and actionable. This is not the case. A hostile environment at work generally does not create a legal action unless it constitutes a form of discrimination or can be linked to a retaliatory motive.

So, how do you determine whether the conduct of a co-worker or a supervisor is sufficiently pervasive to be actionable as a hostile work environment? You must take into account the totality of the circumstances. The victim must also prove that the defendant’s conduct interfered with a reasonable employee’s work performance. The hostility should also be of such a degree that it would by its nature be expected to affect the psychological well-being of a reasonable employee. What things should you consider?

To begin, you could consider the following:

  • The nature of the unwelcome sexual acts or words
  • Frequency or total number of the offensive encounters
  • Total number of days over which all of the offensive conduct occurred
  • Context in which the harassing conduct occurred

In determining what constitutes “sufficiently pervasive” harassment, acts of harassment cannot be occasional, isolated, sporadic, or trivial.

Hostile Work Environment Examples

Below we provide hostile work environment examples. These examples are actions that may create a hostile work environment.

  • Exposure to offensive language or materials including racial slurs or sexist remarks
  • Exposure to pornographic materials, including photographs and videotapes
  • Sexual harassment, such as inappropriate and unwelcome sexual comments or physical touching
  • Leering, i.e., staring in a sexually suggestive manner
  • Making offensive remarks about looks, clothing, body parts
  • Touching in a way that may make an employee feel uncomfortable, such as patting, pinching or intentional brushing against another’s body
  • Telling sexual or lewd jokes, hanging sexual posters, making sexual gestures, etc.
  • Sending, forwarding or soliciting sexually suggestive letters, notes, emails, or images

As the plaintiff in a hostile work environment lawsuit, you must prove that you worked in a hostile environment. You must also provide proof that shows that you were subjected to unwelcome “severe or pervasive” harassment. You must also show that you were offended or affected by the behavior . Furthermore, you need to show that your manager or supervisor knew about the hostile working environment and did nothing to prevent or stop it.

How Do I Prove a Hostile Work Environment?

You should consider keeping written notes or a journal where you record the instances of harassment. Each time you experience harassment, try to write down as many details as possible. Keep these records safe as they may be useful later if you take legal action against your employer. Do not store them on your office computer.

You should also consider keeping copies of emails, text messages or other forms of communication that may qualify as harassment. It is important to demonstrate the harassment was not a “one-time” incident. Instead, it was pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

In addition, be sure to keep any records of complaints you sent to your employer. Once employers become aware of illegal harassment, then they must take steps to remedy the situation. If you filed a formal harassment complaint with your employer, then it could be evidence they knew of the harassment.

Filing a Complaint and Hostile Work Environment Lawsuit

Your employer has an obligation to put a stop to the harassment. If your employer has not stopped harassment after being informed, you can consider filing a complaint and hostile work environment lawsuit.

It is important to remember that many different parties, not just a supervisor or coworkers, can create a hostile work environment. The following parties can also create a hostile workplace:

  • Customers
  • Clients
  • Contractors
  • Employees at other companies


Unfortunately, there is a limit to your options if the harassment is sporadic, isolated or trivial. Here are some questions that may arise during a hostile work environment case:

  • Was the harassment based on your age, gender, race, pregnancy status or some other type of protected characteristic?
  • Was the harassment physically threatening?
  • Did anyone witness the instances of harassment?
  • How frequently did you experience harassment?
  • Would other people consider the actions to be harassment?

Did you answer “yes” to any of these? If so, then you should contact a San Diego hostile workplace lawyer. If you believe your employer is creating a hostile work environment, then you need help. Additionally, we can also advise you on your next steps if your employer fired you for reporting a hostile work environment (retaliation).

Can I File a Complaint for a Hostile Work Environment?

If your workplace is hostile and your employer is not taking steps to prevent harassment, then you may be able to file a formal complaint with a state or federal agency. You could file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Either agency could opt to investigate your claim depending on whether a violation of state or federal law occurred.

You could also reach out to an attorney for help with the complaint process. He or she can then let you know about seeking additional legal options.

Call Our San Diego Hostile Workplace Lawyer for a Free Consultation

A “hostile work environment” might also be actionable as a contract breach. This occurs if it violates company policy or goes so far that it amounts to an unsafe working condition. Thus, it is very important to hire an experienced San Diego hostile workplace lawyer immediately. This will ensure that every aspect of your case is handled correctly and in a timely manner. The attorney at The Gould Firm are experienced in these types of matters. Furthermore, we are prepared to protect your rights and seek the compensation you deserve. 

Call us today at (619) 941-0667 or fill out our online contact form. We are here to help.

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