Although the concept can apply to any type of discrimination, the phrase hostile work environment is often used in reference to claims of sexual harassment. To review, there are two basic types of illegal sexual harassment. One is called quid pro quo, in which an employee is expected to do something of a sexual or romantic nature to get a professional advantage, like a raise or a promotion.
The other type of sexual harassment claim is one based on a hostile work environment. While it is hard to give a precise definition of what is or is not a hostile work environment, it is basically a workplace atmosphere that an ordinary employee would consider to be a hotbed for abuse and intimidation.
Typically, a single crude remark or offensive joke does not rise to the level of a hostile work environment, although especially egregious behavior might. On the other hand, any pattern of abuse or harassment, even if it does not end with the discipline or termination of the victim, can be a hostile work environment.
Unlike quid pro quo harassment, an employer is not automatically responsible for a hostile work environment. Specifically, an employer can avail itself of a safe harbor if it has a clear process in place and uses that process to try to stop the offensive behavior. If employees do not avail themselves of this process, the employer will not be liable.
Sexual harassment claims based on a hostile work environment can be won, and victims of these sorts of toxic workplaces should not hesitate to avail themselves of their legal options.