What Behaviors Are Considered Criteria For a Hostile Work Environment?

Do you want to know what behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment? If so you came to the right place!

Although workplace discrimination laws cover hostile work environment claims, these laws can be vague and hard to understand. They can be subjective or tricky to interpret. Some employees might not understand what kind of behaviors are considered hostile work environment criteria, while others might think they are not victims or that they are overreacting.


Let’s take a closer look at what is and isn’t considered criteria for a hostile work environment, and talk about some ramifications and solutions for employers and employees who find themselves in such a situation.

What Exactly is a Hostile Work Environment?

Employees in United States are protected from discrimination based on gender, sex, race, nationality, disability, and religion. However, some employers still discriminate when making business decisions or take no measures if illegal harassment is occurring in their workplace.

A hostile work environment means that harassment or discrimination has become intolerable enough to affect the employment terms and conditions. This typically means that most employees would quit their job in such a scenario.

These are a number of factors which can result in a hostile work environment.


An inconsiderate or rude employer does not mean a hostile work environment in the eyes of the law. Just because the behavior might be construed as ‘hostile’ does not mean the law sees this type of behavior as a ‘hostile work environment’ legally speaking.

The employee has to show that the hostile behavior is because of their gender, sex, race, nationality, disability, or religion. Calling an employer incompetent is not a hostile work environment, for example. A racial slur however is discrimination, and this might qualify as a hostile work environment.

Let’s look at an example: a man has been demoted within his company and he happens to have a minority religious affiliation. He also thinks the demotion was unfair. Even if it was unfair, that does not mean a hostile work environment necessarily. He has to prove that he was only demoted because of his religious beliefs rather than subpar performance.

Sexual Harassment

This is included under the discrimination umbrella, and is in fact the most common basis for a hostile work environment. Inappropriate or vulgar comments can constitute gender-based discrimination.

The Reasonable Person Rule

If a hypothetical reasonable person would find the behavior at a workplace hostile or abusive, it might count as a hostile work environment. If the average person would not be offended, it is unlikely to count as a hostile work environment.

Let’s look at another example. Men typically like to talk about sports. If a woman in the office complains that this type of talk is discriminatory and that is her only evidence of being discriminated against, that would be unlikely to hold up in front of a judge. The average person would not be offended by sports talk.

Pervasive Behavior

The behavior described as being hostile has to be long-lasting and continuous to qualify. It means if you go about your work during a typical day, you expect to put up with this behavior and it is a condition of your employment.

Single instances of offensive behavior do not usually count as a hostile work environment. If a coworker makes one offensive or racially-charged joke at your expense, that would not qualify. If on the other hand he makes such jokes or remarks every time he sees you for many months, then that might qualify as a hostile work environment.

Reporting the Behavior

If you believe you are in a hostile work environment, you should first of all complain to your manager, if they are not the one being hostile. In order to have a realistic hostile work environment claim, you need to allow your manager the opportunity to fix the situation. If you have already reported it and nothing has been done, then you might have a viable claim, and your manger is now complicit in the unacceptable behavior.

Let’s say your coworker is making racist comments about you. You are not allowed to file a claim against the workplace for this until you have reported it to your manager. You need to give them the chance to find out what is going on and discipline the abusive coworker before getting the courts involved. Even if you are sure the manager is not going to do anything about the problem, you still need to take this step in order to be able to viably claim later.

The Behavior Must Have an Adverse Effect

In order to be classified as a hostile work environment, the behavior in the workplace must be upsetting enough that it affects your work. You do not have to prove it had professional or financial consequences for you, or get fired or demoted, although those things certainly would strengthen a claim.

Who Can Cause a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment might be caused by your manager or supervisor. It might be down to behavior from somebody else such as a coworker, a supervisor in another department, an agent, or even a non-employee of the company like an intern, regular visitor or contractor. Anybody in the workplace can create a hostile work environment as long as their behavior meets the above descriptions.

Offensive Behavior Examples

Let’s elaborate on what is implied by the terms ‘hostile behavior’ and ‘offensive behavior’ to make it clearer. Any of these can make a work environment hostile:

  • Inappropriate touching
  • Sharing sexual photos or videos, discussing sex acts or commenting in a sexual way (this might be directed at the victim or in the victim’s presence)
  • Sexual posters on a cubicle wall
  • Offering unwanted comments on somebody’s appearance
  • Telling offensive jokes
  • Sabotaging an employee’s work
  • Using ethnic slurs or insensitive language
  • Posting inappropriate colleague photos online, even when not in the workplace
  • Settle up a Facebook group or similar to embarrass the colleague

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