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The Hostile Work Environment - Michigan Law

  • Published: 2011-01-24 : Nacht Law.
  • Synopsis: To have a boss that yells or makes employees cry is not an uncommon phenomenon in the United States

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There is a concept in the employment world called hostile work environment. The concept in law is different from the one in most people's heads. Many people who have a boss that yells or creates a high stress working environment are victims of a hostile work environment in the literal sense, but that kind of environment is not necessarily illegal.

To have a boss that yells or makes employees cry is not an uncommon phenomenon in the United States, and the law does not prevent it--except when the motivation is discriminatory. A hostile work environment, in the legal sense, is a workplace made hostile because of a person's gender, race, and/or disability.

Sexually hostile work environment cases are by far the most common. These cases typically involve women who are repeatedly subjugated to offensive conduct of a sexual nature. Instances of repeated touching, exposure to pornography, being asked out on dates, and the like will usually constitute a sexually hostile work environment. It is uncommon for a single incident to be considered a hostile work environment under the law, but a single case of aggressive physical assault can constitute a hostile work environment.

Racially hostile work environments typically must be rather extreme for the courts to provide relief. In the case of African-Americans, we're talking about the repeated use of the N-word or conduct involving references to slavery. In the case of Arab-Americans, we're talking about the repeated use of derogatory terms referring to national origin. The key here is that the conduct should be considered pervasive, and that the victim is being reasonable when he or she takes offense.

Under Michigan law, if the offender is a coworker or a boss, the employee must notify the company through a sexual harassment hotline, make a complaint through a human resources department, or contact the owner to give the company a chance to resolve the problem. Often, just mentioning it to a co-worker of even a supervisor is not considered sufficient notice for the company to be held responsible for fixing the situation. Our firm advises clients how to make a complaint in a way that protects their rights and stops the conduct, while carefully considering the impact on their careers.

Cases of a non-sexual, gender-based hostile work environment or disability-based hostile work environment are very rare in the courts, but they occur more often than is commonly recognized. A boss who picks on a person with a disability in a pervasive manner or who regularly demeans women but not men might be vulnerable to a law suit. Our law firm provides guidance in handling such situations.

Moreover, while the doctrine of bullying has recently taken on prominence regarding kids in school and on the internet, the law still doesn't protect people from bullying in the workplace as a general rule. Truly extreme behavior fits within another category, "intentional infliction of emotional distress," but the courts are very careful in limiting the cases being brought under that doctrine to extreme situations.

Attorneys at Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard & Walker, P.C.,counsel people in many different settings who are under pressure, unsure of their legal options, and how it will all impact their careers.

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