When an employee believes his/her workplace is hostile, the employee’s productivity may suffer.  A hostile work environment may also make an employee feel scared, abused, threatened or offended, and he or she may be able to file a harassment claim against the employer. Knowing what may or may not constitute as a hostile work environment can help employees and employers alike understand their rights and options.

Let’s look at a couple different scenarios. In the first, let us imagine a workplace where a supervisor makes infrequent annoying comments or comes down particularly hard on employees for making a mistake. This supervisor may have a reputation for being negative or speaking harshly when he or she is upset.

In the second scenario, let’s take that same supervisor and those same behaviors but direct them at one employee or type of employee in particular. Let’s say the supervisor repeatedly intimidates or makes offensive comments to women and not men, and no action is taken to address the supervisor’s behaviors.

It should be quite easy to note the differences between these two scenarios: the first would generally not be considered a hostile work environment while the second very well could be.

These distinctions may be clear in theory; in reality, however, the line between what does and does not constitute harassment in the form of a hostile work environment is not necessarily this obvious. Legally speaking, a hostile work environment is defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as one in which a reasonable person would feel intimidated, abused or scared by unwelcome conduct.

Applying this description to individual cases to determine whether an employee’s rights have been violated may be very complicated for people who are directly involved in the dispute. Speaking with an employment law attorney can be helpful in determining whether a workplace is hostile and what, if any, legal action may be appropriate.