In United States labor law, a hostile work environment exists when one's behavior within a workplace creates an environment that is difficult or uncomfortable for another person to work in, due to illegal discrimination. Common complaints in sexual harassment lawsuits include fondling, suggestive remarks, sexually-suggestive photos displayed in the workplace, use of sexual language, or off-color jokes. Small matters, annoyances, and isolated incidents are usually not considered to be statutory violations of the discrimination laws. For a violation to impose liability, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to a reasonable person. An employer can be held liable for failing to prevent these workplace conditions, unless it can prove that it attempted to prevent the harassment and that the employee failed to take advantage of existing harassment counter-measures or tools provided by the employer.
A hostile work environment may also be created when management acts in a manner designed to make an employee quit in retaliation for some action. For example, if an employee reported safety violations at work, was injured, attempted to join a union, or reported regulatory violations by management, and management's response was to harass and pressure the employee to quit. Employers have tried to force employees to quit by imposing unwarranted discipline, reducing hours, cutting wages, or transferring the complaining employee to a distant work location.
The United States Supreme Court stated in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. that Title VII is "not a general civility code". Thus, federal law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not extremely serious. Rather, the conduct must be so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the individual's employment. The conditions of employment are altered only if the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action or is sufficiently severe or pervasive.
Where a hostile environment is alleged, the legality of behaviors must be determined on a case by case basis. In the workplace, such a claim focuses on the working conditions that must be experienced by the victim as a condition of employment, rather than on tangible job changes. To establish whether the situation is actionable the "totality of circumstances" must be weighed with an eye to determining "that the harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment in that it was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the condition of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment".
In many United States jurisdictions, a hostile work environment is not an independent legal claim. That is, an employee could not file a lawsuit on the basis of a hostile work environment alone. Instead, an employee must prove they have been treated in a hostile manner because of their membership in a protected class, such as gender, age, race, national origin, disability status, and similar protected traits. Importantly, the hostile work environment is gender neutral, that is, men can sexually harass men or women and women can sexually harass men or women.
Likewise, a hostile work environment can be considered the "adverse employment action" that is an element of a whistleblower claim or a reprisal (retaliation) claim under a civil rights statute. When an employee claims that a hostile work environment is an adverse employment action, the legal analysis is similar to the burdens of proof described above. However, to recover damages, the employee must also establish all other elements of the claim, such as that the employee engaged in protected conduct such as making a report of discrimination or reporting an employer's violation of law, and also establish that the employer created the hostile work environment, at least in part, because the employee engaged in the protected activity.