Hostile Work Environments: Uncomfortable for You and Your Employees

As an employer, you probably already know you can’t discriminate in hiring or firing people based on protected characteristics (race, gender, religion, disability, etc.). But you also can’t harass an employee based on those characteristics. If harassment creates a “hostile work environment” you could be legally responsible.

What is a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is when the harassment becomes so severe as to interfere with an employee’s ability to do their job. Isolated incidents usually aren’t enough to create a hostile environment. Having a “crappy job” isn’t enough, either, so it can be difficult to make a hostile environment claim.

I would never harass an employee, so I’m clear, right?
Unfortunately no. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) notes that an employer might be liable for actions of their employees or even customers if the employer knows or should have known of the harassment and didn’t take appropriate action.

If it’s hard to make a successful claim, do I really need to worry?
Yes! Even if you don’t end up being sued, harassment can lead to low employee morale and productivity. It can even affect your reputation in the community (and we know people in the Fox Valley care about a business’ reputation).

So what can I do to protect my business?
Talk with an experienced employment attorney to create fair and workable policies. Then, make sure your employees know the policies and enforce them! Take all claims seriously and address them before they create a hostile work environment. You’ll avoid many problems and have something to fall back on if you do get sued.

You started your business because you enjoy what you do and hopefully your employees feel the same. Setting down some ground rules can protect you and help all employees feel comfortable at work.

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