What is a hostile work environment?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “hostile work environment,” and you probably know that you don’t have to put up with one. But what constitutes a hostile work environment? Maybe you have a mean boss who yells a lot. Maybe your supervisor consistently gives you the worst jobs or the least desirable shifts. Maybe your coworker gossips about you to the rest of the office. Do those count as a hostile work environment?

hostile work environment

Unlawful Workplace Harassment

Generally speaking, a hostile work environment is one in which unlawful workplace harassment occurs and affects the victim’s ability to work. In the state of North Carolina, unlawful workplace harassment includes any sort of discriminatory speech or conduct at work. That includes discrimination based on race, gender, faith, age, and disability. A work environment may be considered hostile if a reasonable person would consider it hostile or abusive.

In order to qualify as harassment, the conduct must be sufficiently offensive as to make environment or conditions of employment. This generally means that the offensive behavior must be continuous; a single incident is typically insufficient to qualify as workplace harassment. So, simple teasing, offhand comments, and minor isolated incidents are not considered harassment.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides criteria for determining whether conduct is unlawful harassment. Under that scheme, conduct is considered unlawful harassment is it creates or is intended to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment at work, if it interferes unreasonably with an individual’s work performance, or negatively affects a person’s employment opportunities.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Workplace harassment often takes the form of quid pro quo. This type of harassment generally consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct when that conduct is either a condition of employment or a factor in employment decisions affecting the victim. For example, a request for sexual favors in exchange for a promotion is quid pro quo harassment, as is a threat that the victim will be fired for failing to provide sexual favors.

Note that quid pro quo is not the only type of workplace harassment, just a particularly common one. Discriminatory comments, sexual advances, physical threats, and other types of behavior without the threat of retaliation are also harassment.

Harassment of Others

Your work environment is hostile if you are subject to unlawful harassment. It may also be hostile if a coworker is subject to unlawful harassment. That creates an offensive, oppressive, and intimidating atmosphere at work and may affect your ability to do your job.


If you’re the victim of harassment, you may choose to stand up to the harasser. You may request that the offensive behavior stop and you may refuse quid pro quo harassment. The law protects you from retaliation by the harasser and by your employer for opposing harassment at work. That means you can’t be fired, demoted, given undesirable duties that are not usually a part of your job, have your pay docked, or suffer any other adverse effects on your employment because you opposed the harassment.

The Employer’s Duty

You have the right to a reasonably comfortable work environment under G.S. 168 A-3. If you feel you’ve been a victim of harassment at work, you should speak to a supervisor or human resources worker about it. They are legally obligated to take action to prevent such harassment from continuing. If you’ve requested help and they don’t provide it, you may be in a hostile work environment.

Are you stuck in a hostile work environment?

You should always report the problem to a supervisor or human resources worker before seeking outside remedies. In many cases, your employer will respond promptly to ensure that you feel safe and comfortable at work. If you’ve complained and been ignored or the remedies provided were inadequate, contact an experienced local employment attorney.

Your attorney will work with you to determine the best course of action for your specific case. You have a limited amount of time in which to file a complaint against your employer, so contact an attorney as soon as possible. Keep records of the harassment incidents to provide as evidence. Harassment cases are decided on a case-by-case basis, so you’ll need to provide as many facts as possible.

Remember that the law protects your right to file a claim against your employer for harassment or discrimination. Any retaliation that adversely affects your employment is strictly illegal. In other words, you can’t be fired, demoted, have your hours cut or pay docked, or otherwise punished for submitting a set of forms to the North Carolina Industrial Commission.