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Probably every employment lawyer has received a call from a potential client, a friend or a family member about what that person says is a “hostile work environment.” The caller then describes a workplace where, for example, a manager constantly yells at people. While such an environment may be stressful or unpleasant, it is not necessarily “Hostile” under the law. This is perhaps the single biggest misconception about the laws prohibiting workplace harassment.

A hostile work environment (HWE) involves conduct directed at a person or group of person’s protected trait or traits, e.g., race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation. Sexual harassment is harassing conduct directed at the person because of that person’s gender. While the standards differ under federal (and state) and city law, the complained-of conduct must still be based on a protected trait to fall under the umbrella of HWE. And while a stressful, as opposed to a “Hostile,” work environment may not be illegal, when conducting training I always encourage employees to bring such matters to human resources if it bothers them.

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