Question: An employee is claiming a hostile work environment situation. What should I do next?
Answer: Take the matter seriously and get the facts to better understand the employee’s concerns. It could be a matter that can be resolved quickly by working through the issues that are upsetting the employee. Sometimes an employee will allege a “hostile work environment” simply due to a negative work experience such as being held accountable for errors, or a feeling of unfair treatment such as not being permitted to take time away from work when others are granted the time off.
Hostile work environment claims should be completely and thoroughly investigated to protect employees from discrimination, harassment, or bullying behavior. Harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, genetic information, or other attributes included in state laws. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.
Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.
Document the claim and the steps you take to resolve the issue. Even if the issue does not rise to the level of a hostile work environment claim, work with the employee to manage his concerns and resolve the work issues. If the matter is more serious and meets the definitions of a hostile work environment claim, thoroughly interview the employee and document the facts, including time(s), date(s), and location(s) of the hostile acts, witnesses to the events, and any other details. Provide this information to your human resources manager, legal counsel, or an outside investigator so that they can conduct a thorough investigation and follow up with corrective action to resolve the issue.