When workers in San Diego and throughout the entire state of California file lawsuits against employers for sexual harassment, they will sometimes cite that their work environments became too "hostile" for them to handle. Although any work setting where sexual harassment has occurred may be thought of as hostile, conditions in the office must meet specific requirements before employees can claim that their work environments are hostile.
According to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), isolated and even occasional acts of harassment do not always constitute a hostile work environment. However, harassment in any form is still illegal and complaints should be properly filed by employees in order to make sure that their rights are protected and that the harassment stops.
When an employee claims that an environment has become hostile under FEHA, the employee must be able to provide sufficient evidence of the harassment being severe enough to change the conditions in the office and to affect one's ability to do his or her job. Additionally, if employees claim that harassment against other workers affected their own ability to work, the employees must provide sufficient evidence that they witnessed the harassment in person.
In a case recently decided by the California Court of Appeals, the court overturned a previous decision by a jury that ruled in favor of a woman who claimed that her work environment became hostile. The woman reported that between 2000 and 2003, she had attended three off-site work parties with employees that involved sexually offensive conduct. In 2004, she received an email by mistake that was written by an executive at her company. The email referred to the woman as "big-titted" and "mindless."
In 2005, the employee quit and sued her former employer for sexual harassment and for creating a hostile work environment. A jury initially awarded the woman $250,000 in damages, but an appeals court judge overturned the jury's decision citing that there was no evidence that the woman was ever assaulted, subjected to unwanted advances, threatened, propositioned or subjected to explicit language or verbal abuse.
The court agreed that that the email about the woman was "rude," but it was an isolated event and was never intended for the employee to see in the first place. The other incidents cited by the woman in her lawsuit also occurred more than six months apart which did not provide any evidence of a pattern of harassment, the appeals court ruled.
Source: HR.BLR.com, "Sexual Harassment: What Conduct Creates a Hostile Work Environment?" Jan. 10, 2012