Toxic Workplaces: Understanding Your Rights as a Federal Employee

June 7, 2024
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

A toxic workplace can turn a dream job into a nightmare. Dealing with a toxic workplace culture can make it difficult to do your job effectively, sap your motivation, and over time, cause significant psychological strain.

So, what can (and should) you do?

If you are dealing with a toxic workplace as a federal employee, your options depend on the specific circumstances at hand. While individual circumstances vary, federal employees who are forced to endure toxic workplaces will have grounds to pursue legal action in many cases.

Key Questions for Understanding Your Rights

Understanding your legal rights starts with understanding your situation. With this in mind, here are four key questions for assessing the legal implications of a toxic work environment in the federal sector:

Is Your Toxic Workplace Unsafe?

If your toxic workplace is unsafe, you should talk to a federal employment lawyer immediately. Under no circumstances should your physical or psychological health be at risk on the job. If you and your coworkers are putting in dangerously long hours, if you are being forced to ignore safety hazards, if you have been pressured to overlook or ignore accidents or injuries, or if you feel unsafe for any other reason, you should seek legal advice right away.

Are You Experiencing (or Have You Experienced) Discrimination?

Discrimination is a common factor in toxic workplaces. This includes discrimination based on race, sex, gender identity, age and other protected characteristics. The more that discriminatory beliefs, comments and actions are allowed to pervade a federal workplace, the more toxic the workplace will become. Discrimination in federal workplaces is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) and the Rehabilitation Act—among several other federal anti-discrimination laws.

Are You Facing an Unwarranted Disciplinary Action or an Unjustified Poor Performance Review?

Whether superiors have unreasonable expectations or they discriminate against certain workers, unwarranted disciplinary actions and unjustified poor performance reviews can also create toxic workplaces. In many cases, they can justify legal action as well. As a result, if you believe that you have been treated unfairly at work (and are facing adverse consequences as a result), this is another scenario in which you should speak with a lawyer about asserting your legal rights.

Does Your Toxic Workplace Qualify as a Hostile Work Environment?

Does your toxic workplace qualify as a hostile work environment? If so, this is another scenario in which you have clear legal rights. Federal employers must take the necessary steps to ensure that their work environments do not become hostile; and, if they fail to do so, they can (and should) be held accountable. Hostile work environments can provide grounds to pursue harassment and discrimination claims under Title VII and other federal laws.

Options You May Have Available

While individual circumstances vary, if you are dealing with a toxic workplace as a federal employee, you have options available. These options may include:

  • Talk to Your Supervisor – Depending on the circumstances, talking to your supervisor about your concerns could be enough. If your supervisor was unaware of the issues in your workplace and is committed to resolving them as quickly as possible, this could be the best path forward. With that said, you may still be entitled to remedies, so it will still be worth talking to a lawyer about your legal rights.
  • Talk to Your Human Resources (HR) Representative – If your supervisor is partially (or solely) responsible for your toxic workplace, then you may need to talk to your human resources (HR) representative instead. You should be able to talk to your HR representative in confidence; and, whether you reach out to your supervisor or HR representative, you should not face any negative repercussions as a result of coming forward.
  • Seek a Transfer or Reassignment – If you do not have grounds to pursue legal action, then your best path forward may be to seek a transfer or reassignment. Here too, however, we recommend speaking with a lawyer about your options before you make a decision about whether (or not) to take legal action.
  • Talk to a Lawyer About Filing a Complaint – If you have grounds to pursue legal action based on your toxic workplace, you will want to work with an experienced federal employment lawyer to prepare and file your complaint. To make sure you don’t run out of time to assert your legal rights, you should schedule a confidential initial consultation right away.

These are just examples. Depending on your individual circumstances, you may have other options as well. While several laws provide important protections for federal workers, these laws can be exceedingly complex; and, as a result, understanding whether you have grounds to take legal action is not easy. To make sure you are giving due consideration to all relevant factors, you should seek advice from an experienced federal employment lawyer who can advise you with your best interests in mind.

Which Option Should You Choose?

In light of everything we’ve discussed, which option should you choose? Once again, to answer this question, you will need to discuss the unique details of your toxic workplace with an experienced federal employment lawyer. Even in similar circumstances, different federal employees can have different rights, so you should not base your decision on what any of your coworkers may or may not have done. Once you get advice based on your individual circumstances, then you can decide what is best for you.

Talk to a Federal Employment Lawyer in Confidence

Are you being forced to endure a toxic workplace as a federal employee? If so, you deserve better, and you should discuss your options with a lawyer in confidence as soon as possible. To schedule a confidential initial consultation with an experienced federal employment lawyer at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, please call 410-514-6099 or tell us how we can reach you online today.