The “Me Too” movement is having a viral moment, and it is raising awareness of sexual harassment for people across the entire country. In many of the stories that are making headlines, men and women alike are speaking up about misconduct in the workplace, complaining about being forced to work in a hostile work environment. But what exactly does that mean?

‘Hostile work environment’ is more than just having to work with people who you don’t like, or working for a boss who is demanding, rude, or unappreciative. It is a legal term that has specific criteria, including working with a boss or coworker who says things, does things, or behaves in such a way as to make it impossible for you to do your job because of the way that it made you feel, or the way that it changed the environment or conditions under which you can work. The specific behavior has to be discriminatory as described by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The requirements for sexual harassment to have created a hostile work environment include:

  • Being directed against a protected class
  • Must be repetitive and persistent rather than a one-time event
  • If it is happening around a worker all the time and the organization doesn’t investigate it or address the problem
  • It must be severe enough to disrupt your work

This may sound like it’s setting a high bar, but the rules are designed to make sure that it establishes a red line between what is simply annoying and what is actually sexual harassment. So, if you have a coworker who is constantly boring you with his photos of his dog or his stories of his latest vacation, it may make it hard for you to get your job done, but it isn’t discriminatory. On the other hand, if the photos he is trying to show you are pornography, or the stories he is telling are about his sexual conquests, that is a different story.

A hostile work environment can be discriminatory based on a number of different protected categories, including your age, your race, and your religion. Sexual harassment is discriminatory based upon your sexual preference or your gender, and constitutes a hostile work environment.

If you believe your work environment has become untenable because of sexual harassment, you may be able to pursue legal action to address the hostile work environment. You should always start with your organization’s Human Resources department if at all possible. If that brings no relief or makes the situation worse, contact the attorneys at Bochetto & Lentz to learn about your rights and how we can help.