There's a big difference between a work environment that's just unpleasant, a boss that's just rude, or a coworker with no sense of boundaries and a legally hostile work environment. Here's how you can tell if your situation falls into the legal category of a hostile work environment.
Does your situation meet all of the requirements of a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is one where the actions or behavior of another person or group of people literally make it impossible for you to do your work. You have to be the target of discrimination because of your inclusion in a particular class of people that are protected under either federal or state laws. For example, you may be targeted because of your gender, gender identification, sexual orientation, race, religion, or disability. In addition, the behavior has to be severe, ongoing, and pervasive—one or two incidents are rarely enough to meet the requirements.
Did your employer fail to act once you reported the problem or retaliate against you instead?
Generally speaking, what ends up taking a hostile work environment case into the courtroom is the employer's failure to fix the problem. Sometimes the employer doesn't want to act and would rather get rid of the complaining employee (you) than upset a whole group of employees. Sometimes the employer just doesn't know how to handle the problem. Sometimes the employer is the problem. Any of those situations can leave you with no other choice but to take the issue to an attorney.
When you hear about hostile work environment lawsuits, they're usually connected to other discrimination lawsuits, especially sexual harassment claims, simply because a hostile work environment has to be based on discrimination in order to exist. For example, if you're a victim of sexual harassment due to your gender, you may also be a victim of a hostile work environment if the behavior meets all of the qualifications above, you report it to your employer, and your employer doesn't do anything to stop it.
What should you know when you report the behavior to your employer?
Since the first step of any harassment, discrimination, or hostile work environment claim is giving your employer a chance to fix the problem, you have to report the issue before you can take it to an attorney—even if your boss is the person harassing and discriminating against you. If you work for a large enough company, you can go to human resources. If not, you can notify your boss directly that you consider his or her actions to be discriminatory and illegal.
It's always smart to have a record of the incidents, including what was said or done, who witnessed it, and when. This can help if your HR department or boss wants specifics. It's also wise to put your complaint in writing and make a copy of the letter. If you email the complaint, make a hard copy or send a duplicate to your private email account—just in case you are retaliated against and don't have further access to your work computer again.
If your initial attempts to resolve the problem don't work, consider contacting an attorney like Davis George Mook for further advice.