The term "hostile work environment" gets used frequently by employers and employees. It's used in a so many contexts that it seems to have lost true meaning. Hostile work environment allegations range from employees being micro-managed to employees being ridiculed because of their sexual orientation. So what does hostile work environment mean and when is an employer liable for a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is harassment that is so severe and pervasive that it interferes with an employee's ability to perform his or her job. The frequency of the conduct, the severity, whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, and the extent it interferes with work performance are all important considerations when determining whether a hostile work environment exists. The unwelcome conduct can come at the hand of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or others employees interact with.
But, not all conduct that interferes with an employee's ability to perform his or her job is actionable. A valid hostile work environment claim arises when the conduct is based on a protected class e.g. race, gender, religion. A supervisor who makes an employee's life difficult simply because the supervisor doesn't like that employee doesn't necessarily give rise to a hostile work environment claim. (However, it may not be advisable to allow a supervisor to treat people poorly based on personal likes and dislikes). Other potential claims exist, but courts are generally slow to find employers liable because of personality conflicts within the workplace.