In employment law, the phrase “hostile work environment” is an often misunderstood concept. We often receive calls from people claiming that their boss is a true jerk who screams at everyone and has everyone at work constantly on edge because they never know when the next yelling fit will occur. A screaming boss does sound pretty “hostile” in the normal sense of the term and, if it is happening in the workplace, then it must be a “hostile work environment,” right? More often than not, the answer is no and these people are quite disappointed to hear that their boss has not broken any employment laws.

A hostile work environment refers to a situation where an employee is subjected to harassment in the workplace and may not even be able to do his job because of the offensive, intimidating, or oppressive atmosphere created by the harasser. In order to be a hostile work environment, the harassment must be due, at least in part, to some protected characteristic of the person being harassed, such as age, disability, race, gender, or pregnancy. If the boss  is subjecting an employee to less than ideal treatment simply because he is, for example, a Red Sox fan and the boss hates Red Sox fans, then this would not equate to a hostile work environment because the conduct is not based upon a characteristic or trait protected by federal employment laws. Even if some action is possibly based upon an employee’s being a member of a protected class, the conduct must still be “severe or pervasive” enough to create a hostile work environment. The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that Title VII, which prohibits race, ethnic, gender, and religious discrimination, is “not a general civility code.” As such, federal laws relating to the workplace do not prohibit offhand comments, casual teasing, or isolated incidents that are not serious.

Hostile work environments exist where a boss mocks or makes fun of an employee with a disability or a supervisor who tells crude sexist or racist jokes. If such actions are “severe or pervasive” enough then they can constitute a hostile work environment. If the boss, however, is an “equal opportunity jerk” who treats pretty much everyone at work horribly, regardless of whether they are a member of a protected class or not, then he probably is not doing anything illegal or creating a hostile work environment. If you feel you are being subjected to a hostile work environment, then you should speak with an employment law attorney.