Step 5: Hostile Environment—Types of Sexual Harassment


A hostile environment can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the victim interacts on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace or educational atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive.

Examples of behaviors that may contribute to an unlawful hostile environment include:

  • discussing sexual activities;
  • telling off-color jokes concerning race, sex, disability, or other protected bases;
  • unnecessary touching;
  • commenting on physical attributes;
  • displaying sexually suggestive or racially insensitive pictures;
  • using demeaning or inappropriate terms or epithets;
  • using indecent gestures;
  • using crude language;
  • sabotaging the victim's work;
  • engaging in hostile physical conduct.


When harassing conduct violates the law

First, unlawful harassing conduct must be unwelcome and based on the victim's protected status.

Second, the conduct must be:

  1. subjectively abusive to the person affected; and 
  2. objectively severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.

 Whether an instance or a pattern of harassing conduct is severe or pervasive is determined on a case-by-case basis, with consideration paid to the following factors:

  1. the frequency of the unwelcome discriminatory conduct;
  2. the severity of the conduct;
  3. whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance;
  4. whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with work performance;
  5. the effect on the employee's psychological well-being; and
  6. whether the harasser was a superior within the organization.

 Hostile work environment cases are often difficult to recognize, because the particular facts of each situation determine whether offensive conduct has crossed the line from ordinary tribulations of the workplace, such as the sporadic use of abusive language . . . and occasional teasing, to unlawful harassment.



A female staff member, Meenah, is asked by her supervisor, Richard, to facilitate the department's weekly Friday meeting while he is out of town at a conference. As a newer member of the department, Meenah visits her colleagues asking for their input on an agenda and topics for the meeting. Chris, longtime staff member tells her that he doesn't usually attend these meetings because they don't have anything to do with him. Chris has also made it known that he believes men and only men should be in charge of meetings. Then, on Friday, he shows up at the meeting and announces that he doesn't understand why the supervisor would appoint Meenah, a female and a newcomer, to run the meetings—"Why do we have a girl running the meeting? Is this some affirmative action thing?"

The following clip is an example of harassment contributing to a hostile environment.


Hostile Environment