1. My work environment is hostile.  My boss hates me and yells at me.  My co-workers are mean to me and gossip about me behind my back.  I keep getting unfair write-ups.  I’m not getting promotions.  I can’t stand going to work anymore.  Can I sue?

Without more, no.  The term “hostile work environment” is often misunderstood.  The law does not provide a remedy for bad jobs, bad bosses, and bad work conditions.  Instead, your remedy is to find a new job.  A general discussion of the rights of at-will employees can be found here.

Instead, a “hostile work environment” must be based on a claim of illegal discrimination or some other sort of illegal conduct.  A hostile work environment is a form of discrimination, not an independent cause of action.

2. When can I sue based on a hostile work environment?

You can sue when the hostile work environment is tied to something that is legally protected or legally prohibited.  Examples:

-- A sexually hostile work environment

-- A racially hostile work environment

-- A religiously hostile work environment

-- A hostile work environment because of age or disability

-- A retaliatory hostile work environment

-- A hostile work environment in response to use of FMLA leave

3. What does it take to prove a hostile work environment?

The standard is very high.  The courts are fond of reminding us that the discrimination laws are not a workplace civility code.  In general, the conduct must be severe or pervasive.  There have been many cases in which a handful of episodes of crude conduct have been found insufficient to support a claim of a sexually hostile work environment, and there have been cases in which racial slurs have been found insufficient to support a claim of a racially hostile work environment.

It is possible to win on a hostile work environment claim, but the courts expect employees to have thick skins.  Some workplaces can be rude and raunchy places, and courts are not in the business of intervening in ordinary workplace disputes.

4. What should I do if I think my work environment is hostile for an illegal reason?

You will usually need to follow your company’s harassment policies and report the matter to HR or whoever is designated in the policies.  If the harassment is coming from your supervisor, you may be able to skip this step, but only if the supervisor’s powers meet certain legal requirements.

5. Can I quit and then sue?

Possibly.  You would have a claim for constructive discharge, which is discussed here.  However, the legal standard for a constructive discharge is even higher than the standard for a hostile work environment.

David C. Holmes is a Houston employment lawyer with The Law Offices of David C. Holmes