Many people find their work environments to be stressful. However, being annoyed or uncomfortable at work is not enough to constitute a hostile work environment in the eyes of the law. There is a legal criteria that must be met in order to sue an employer for creating or maintaining a hostile work environment.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is used as the legal standard when considering whether a hostile work environment exists. Under the Act, it is illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, and sex.

This law has since been interpreted to mean that racial, religious, or sexual harassment in the workplace constitutes unlawful discrimination if it creates a “hostile work environment,” altering an employee’s working conditions, or making it difficult or impossible for the employee to do his or her job.

The Act also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to monitor violations and take complaints. Generally, the following requirements must be met to make a case for a hostile work environment:

  • The harassment must be both “severe” and “pervasive.” One offensive remark, or mere teasing, usually will not suffice. However, these 2 factors operate on a sliding scale: the more severe the harassment, the less pervasive it has to be, and the less severe, the more pervasive it must be.
  • Discrimination must be against a protected class including age, religion, disability and race. Many states have recently added marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • The harassment and discrimination is based on an “objective” standard. This means that a reasonable employer knew or should have known that the environment was hostile and failed to intervene. Employers can also be liable for directly creating the hostile environment.

What is Considered a Racial Slur?

Racial slur or racial harassment is unwelcome verbal or physical conduct toward another person based on their race or national origin. Racist jokes are also considered racial slurs and racial harassment.

Racial slurs in the workplace is considered illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Courts have determined that even one instance of racial slur can be enough to create a hostile work environment.

Can Racial Slurs Create a Hostile Work Environment?

Racial slurs are enough to create a hostile work environment. It is unlawful to harass another person because of that person's race or color in the workplace. This type of harassment includes using racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person's race or color. 

The law does not punish simple teasing, offhand comments, but when it comes to harassment due to a person’s race or national origin it is considered illegal and will create a hostile work environment.

The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or client and/or customer.

What are Factors Are Considered to Determine if a Hostile Work Environment Exists?

Courts have determined that even one instance of racial slur can be enough to create a hostile work environment. Courts have used several factors in determining whether or not a working environment is hostile including:

  • The actions or behavior discriminate against a Title VII protected classification, such as race, sex or gender, religion, disability, or age.
  • It is offensive, continual, and is not swiftly investigated and addressed by the company.
  • The acts were severe enough to interfere with the employee’s work, and/or it interferes with the employee’s career ladder progression.
  • The employer was aware of what was going on, yet did not take action to stop the behavior. In this case, the employer may be held liable.
  • The victim believed he or she had to tolerate the behavior to remain employed.

What Can Employers Do to Prevent a Hostile Work Environment?

Courts have determined that even a single isolated incident of using a racial slur toward an employee can create a hostile work environment that can create legal liability for discrimination or harassment.

Employers should take the following steps to train employees not to use any derogatory or racial slurs in the workplace by doing the following preventive steps:

  • Clearly communicate through employee handbook policies that discrimination and racial harassment will not be tolerated and make sure everyone gets a copy of the handbook
  • Immediately investigate any complaints of racial discrimination and harassment
  • Take immediate action in doing remedial measures to correct any issues that involve racial slurs and discrimination
  • Continually train all supervisors and employees regarding discrimination and harassment prevention

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you believe you have been subjected to a hostile work environment, been the target of racial slurs or have concerns about any of the subjects listed above, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney to ensure your rights are protected. No one should have to be subjected to a hostile work environment and if you were victimized at work, consult an employment law attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help put your case together, and get the relief to which you are entitled.