Hostile Work Environment & UI Benefits

Updated : January 6th, 2023

You may be considering quitting your job because the environment at work no longer feels secure or peaceful. Perhaps, you already quit the job voluntarily because you could not take it anymore. Since UI benefits are usually offered to people who lose their jobs due to no fault of their own, it is only natural that you might be wondering if you are eligible or not. Here’s some happy news, unemployment benefits, in most cases, are offered to people who quit because of hostile work atmosphere!

Hostile work environment
Looks Familiar? Unpleasant Workplace

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

The phrase, “hostile work environment,” is more than a simple descriptor. It is a legal definition of a workplace environment involving issues with a protected class. Legal action can be taken and the employer can be held accountable.

A hostile work environment must target or specifically impact a protected class of individuals. In addition, a hostile environment – also known as a toxic work environment or toxic workplace – is one in which the pervading culture is one that a reasonable person would find so abusive or intimidating that it impacts one’s ability to effectively carry out day-to-day work tasks. In other words, either the direct approval and conduct of supervisors or the tolerated toxic behavior of team members creates an environment that is detrimental to someone reasonably being able to work.

If you think you might be working within a hostile environment, it’s important to understand the details of the legal definition. Being teased or excluded by one’s co-workers certainly is unpleasant, but that conduct alone may not be persistent, severe, or pervasive enough to be legally actionable. As a general rule, personality conflicts, slights, annoyances, rudeness, and isolated incidents are not sufficient to constitute a hostile work environment.

To meet the legal requirements for a hostile work environment, a workplace must regularly carry out and accept practices that are discriminatory against gender, race, religion, pregnancy, age, sexual orientation, disability, nation of origin, or genetic information – all categories that are protected by the Equal Opportunity Commission.

In addition, this type of toxic environment must be pervasive and long-lasting – and the employer must either not have investigated at all and been unaware of the situation, or the employer must have been aware of the hostile work environment and done nothing to remedy the situation. It’s important to remember that even discriminatory conduct that is isolated or occurs sporadically may not constitute a hostile work environment.

The victim must be able to show that their ability to effectively complete their work has been impeded by this hostile culture – and that enduring the hostile culture is a condition of continued employment. Typically, toxic work cultures are characterized by a general feeling of fear and apprehension. Many times, workers want to quit a hostile workplace, but they’re afraid of retaliation or being accused of falsely claiming unemployment benefits if they voluntarily quit the situation.

Unemployment Insurance Eligibility

Your eligibility will depend upon the nature and extent of hostility of your work environment. In general, following cases are said to accepted as circumstances for constructively discharging you.

  • Criminal activity that you tried to bring to the attention of your employer
  • Health or safety issues that you tried to bring to the notice of your employer
  • Hostile environment due to illegal harassment or discrimination, such as due to your race, religion, age (40+) or a disability
  • Hostility in the form of retaliation for bringing criminal behavior, health/ safety issues or discrimination to the attention of your employer or relevant government organizations

That said, there are some other things that we need to understand. An unpleasant place of work or a difficult boss who treats you and your colleagues badly or some similar issue may not be considered as hostile environment. What we have to understand is that there is no legal rule which says that the employer must keep the employee happy. So the employer has no obligation to ensure that employees get along. Likewise, the employee can neither have the legal expectation nor right of a pleasant workplace.

Minor disagreements with superiors or co-workers, differences in opinion hardly count as hostile work environment. We are not say that you should not leave the job, you may if the atmosphere is difficult for you, but, you may not receive any benefits in a situation like this. Approach an unemployment attorney to know for sure whether you are eligible or not.

Determining the UI Eligibility

Once you file for UI benefits, the unemployment department will conduct a probe into the circumstances that lead to your job separation. The officials then compare your statement regarding the work environment and what they found out during the probe to determine the genuineness of the case.

What can I do to prove my side and fight hostile environment at work?

Proving that your work atmosphere was indeed hostile is not a very easy task. Especially if you are the only one who was picked on. But there are certain things that you can do to aid your claim.

1. Document everything: Keep a journal, carry an audio recorder, create backups of online content or hate mails. In short, whatever you can document and save, do it. While documenting, make sure that you record the date and time as well.

2. Talk to someone: If there is anyone you can trust at work, tell them about the problem. It could be your boss, your co-worker, someone at human resources or even the janitor. Tell someone about it. During the probe by the UI dept., if they learn that nobody knows about the fact that you were harassed, it may render you ineligible for UI benefits.

3. Keep track of your complaints: Use e-mails or any other form of recordable method while submitting your complaints. This can later prove to be useful.

4. Don’t quit your job right away: Unless you are in imminent danger, don’t quit immediately. If you really need UI benefits, try to avoid quitting immediately after the hostility begins. Stay back until you have sufficient evidence to prove to the UI authorities.

7 Examples of a Hostile Work Environment

  1. Sexual comments and Innuendo
  2. Bullying
  3. Inappropriate Touching
  4. Gossip
  5. Racism
  6. Discrimination Against Protected Classes
  7. Intimidation or Ridicule

While every hostile work environment is unique, these types of work cultures do share some common characteristics and typical types of infractions. We’ve outlined some of the most common here.

1. Sexual Comments and Innuendo

Within a hostile workplace, where inappropriate conduct is accepted and perhaps even encouraged, it is not uncommon to hear co-workers openly discussing sex acts or routinely using sexually suggestive language. In addition, a toxic work culture typically allows for, and perhaps even celebrates, making unwanted sexual advances, or observations or comments about team members’ physical characteristics, along with the sharing of sexually explicit images or other pornographic material.

Many times this offensive conduct constitutes sexual harassment. When these behaviors are tolerated by the top executives of a company, this workplace may be considered toxic or hostile according to state or federal law.

2. Bullying

Bullying is closely related to workplace harassment. Bullying can take the form of colleagues yelling at teammates or subordinates – or supervisors using intimidation to force team members to take on extra assignments.

Bullying is most toxic when it is combined with power, so situations in which supervisors bully their teams can be crippling to team performance. Bullying often is directed toward those in protected classes – those traditionally seen as more vulnerable, like those who are disabled, women, or people of color. This type of conduct is intended to intimidate, and it represents a tremendous danger to individuals’ mental health.

Bullying behavior from a supervisor may look like invalid criticism or blame without facts to back it up – or it also may take the form of being excluded from the rest of the team or being closely monitored in a way that differs from the rest of the team. At its heart, workplace bullying is often a blatant abuse of power.

3. Inappropriate Touching

Any touch that is unsolicited and unwelcome is inappropriate, whether a hand on the shoulder, a hug or other, or any other type of unwanted touch. Any contact with a co-worker that makes someone feel uncomfortable or that is unwelcome is inappropriate. The touch doesn’t have to come from a supervisor or an employee in a position of power.

Inappropriate touching does not necessarily have to be sexual in nature to be considered unwelcome conduct – the chief determining factor is whether the touch made someone feel uncomfortable and was unwanted. While some workers may be comfortable giving hugs or massages, or even sitting extremely close while working on a project, this level of intimacy is not comfortable for everyone. Employment law recognizes that no one should be subject within the workplace to a level of uncomfortable physical contact.

4. Gossip

A toxic workplace often is marked by team members being allowed – or even encouraged – to gossip about, slander, or otherwise sabotage the success of their peers. In this type of hostile environment, supervisors entertain this type of discussion without setting healthy boundaries or involving all parties in a discussion of workplace disputes. This type of talk often veers into the personal lives of team members, which may include open gossip about characteristics that classify a co-worker in a protected class.

5. Racism

Racist conduct in a hostile work environment can look like many different things. It may entail a work culture that allows for the sharing of offensive jokes and/or stories about people whose race constitutes a protected class – or the use of racial insults and slurs, either openly or covertly. At its very worst, racism in the workplace can take the form of individuals from underrepresented races not being considered in hiring decisions and/or not being considered for promotions, raises, executive-level positions, etc.

6. Discrimination Against Protected Classes

If someone is singled out and denied the same opportunities as others based on a protected characteristic like disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, and others, this constitutes employment discrimination. Team members who are part of any protected class legally must be provided the same opportunities for hiring, promotion, and special assignments as their co-workers who are not part of a protected class.

Other forms of discrimination may include moving a teammate’s desk to an isolating location, denying a team member the tools or resources they need to complete their work, or giving someone the worst possible assignments. When these actions are taken in response to a team member raising concerns about workplace conduct, they can constitute retaliation as well.

7. Intimidation or Ridicule

It can be all too common for supervisors and coworkers to try to intimidate a colleague into quitting – especially if that colleague has filed a formal complaint alleging that the work environment is toxic. This is known also as retaliation, and it is illegal and against most organizations’ HR policies.

Some supervisors also operate with a near-constant threat of punishment, which can keep team members from voicing their concerns. One of the chief psychological effects of a hostile workplace is the fear of losing employment if someone gives voice to what’s happening. In many cases, this fear is entirely justified. In some cases, employees even wonder if the employer will deny their unemployment eligibility if they choose to quit their toxic workplace.

In addition to intimidation, ridicule is a tool often employed in a toxic workplace to pressure individuals into leaving the organization. While workplace jokes and pranks can be healthy at the right level and in moderation, pranks that publicly embarrass or frustrate team members, or any other form of pervasive public ridicule, can constitute a hostile environment.

Should I Hire an Employment Lawyer?

If you are the victim of a hostile environment, you may eventually need to work with a qualified employment lawyer to find a suitable legal remedy. However, the first step is to try to address the situation with company leadership. If this isn’t an option that’s available to you, or you’ve already tried and not landed on a suitable solution, it may make sense to reach out to an employment lawyer for help. Try to connect with a lawyer who specializes in employment law, discrimination law, and perhaps even wrongful termination if that applies.

In many cases, an employment lawyer can help mediate a resolution between you and your employer without actually going to court. In others, especially if your employer is unwilling to try to reach an agreement, an employment lawyer can help determine whether moving forward with legal action against your employer is likely to be worth it.

In particular, an employment lawyer can review the details of your complaint and provide legal advice about whether the situation with your employer constitutes a hostile or toxic work environment according to state or federal law. It’s important to remember that in legal cases alleging hostile work environments, the burden of proof falls on the victim. This means that, as the employee accusing an organization of having a toxic culture, it’s up to you to provide enough proof to establish that this culture actually exists.

So, even before you engage with an employment attorney, you should keep careful notes and collect evidence of toxic workplace behavior. Your attorney also can advise you on legal measures in place designed for whistleblower protection.

If your attorney advises you to move forward, the first step outside of your work organization is to file an administrative complaint at either the state or federal level. The investigating agency then will issue a determination as to whether there is sufficient evidence of a toxic workplace. At that point, the agency also can assist with developing the appropriate charge. And even if the investigating agency fails to recommend moving forward, you can choose to file your own lawsuit.

If you are the victim of toxic workplace conduct, try to document every instance of harassment. If someone else may have observed the harassing behavior, ask them to serve as a witness if necessary. Keep copies of performance reviews or any other type of work assessment that shows how the hostile environment has affected your quality of work. If you have consulted with a mental health professional about your toxic work environment, documentation and letters of assessment from your mental health counselor may prove helpful for your case.

Please also remember that even in cases where a situation doesn’t meet the legal criteria for a hostile workplace, the situation may reflect harassing behavior that is against your organization’s policies. A trusted workplace attorney can help you determine what, if any, legal action may be appropriate in your specific case.

If you don’t think you’re ready to engage with an attorney, you may also take your concerns straight to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the equivalent organization in your state. 

The final word

The most important thing is to ensure your safety, especially if the hostility is physical in nature. Keep your friends and family informed, have someone ready to raise an alarm if needed. If you cannot continue anymore, take some time off from work and collect your thoughts.

We understand that a hostile work environment is one of the most difficult situations a person can face. Try to remain calm and composed. Apply for another job, spend quality time with your friends and family and follow the steps we discussed here. We sincerely hope that everything will get better for you and we shall always be here to help you. Use our discussion forums to clear your doubts and concerns.

If you found this useful, share it with others who might be facing difficulties at work too. Together, let’s help the victims of workplace bullying and harassment.

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