What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment in the Federal Sector?

June 21, 2024
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

As a federal employee, you are entitled to a work environment that is safe, welcoming and free of hostility. You have the right to feel comfortable at work, and you have the right to be treated equally among your colleagues regardless of race, sex, gender identity, age or other personal circumstances. As a result, if you experience hostility (or any other form of unequal treatment) in your federal workplace, you should speak with a federal employment lawyer about the options you have available.

Just like employers in the private sector, federal employers must ensure that their employees are not subjected to hostile work environments. Subjecting an employee to a hostile work environment is a form of harassment, and harassment is a form of discrimination under Title VII and other federal anti-discrimination laws. This means that federal employees can (and should) take action when they experience a hostile work environment—and it means that federal employers can (and should) be held accountable for failing to provide adequate protection.

Indicators of a Hostile Workplace in the Federal Sector

How do you know if you have a federal discrimination claim based on a hostile work environment? There is no single definition of a hostile work environment, and there is no “litmus test” for determining when legal action is warranted. Instead, federal employees must work with an experienced lawyer to assess their legal rights on a case-by-case basis. With this in mind, some common indicators of a hostile workplace in the federal sector include:

  • Discriminatory comments, use of slurs, and stereotyping
  • Harassing conduct that goes ignored or overlooked by managers or supervisors
  • Hazing, verbal or physical abuse, and other harmful behavior
  • Insults that have an underlying element of discrimination or bad intent
  • Threats of physical harm or sexual assault
  • Unwanted and unwelcome touching (whether harmful, discomforting or sexual in nature)
  • Other inappropriate behavior that negatively impacts the victim’s ability to perform his or her job duties
  • Other inappropriate behavior that negatively impacts the victim’s opportunities for advancement

Generally speaking, one-off or even occasional instances of hostility will not be sufficient to justify a federal discrimination claim based on a hostile work environment (though egregious actions may be enough to warrant a federal discrimination claim on their own). In the words of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):

“Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.”

With all of that said, if you believe that you may be experiencing a hostile work environment, there is a good chance that you are right. While there are limits on when federal employees can take legal action, federal employees can still take legal action in many circumstances. Since hostile work environments rarely improve on their own (and, if anything, are more likely to get worse), we strongly recommend that you seek advice about the options you have available in light of the circumstances at hand.

Do You Have a Hostile Work Environment Claim as a Federal Employee?

If you believe that you may have a hostile work environment claim as a federal employee, there are some important steps you should take promptly. While federal employees have clear legal rights—including many rights that are not afforded to employees in the private sector—federal employees can also lose their ability to take legal action if they do not act promptly. With this in mind, if you believe that you have been subjected to a hostile workplace in the federal sector, you should:

Document Your Hostile Work Environment

To the extent that you can, you should document your hostile work environment. Be sure to keep any written or recorded messages you have received, and take notes detailing all of the harassment, discrimination and abuse you have experienced on the job. The more evidence and information you can preserve, the better.

Report Your Concerns to Your Supervisor (or Your Human Resources Representative)

You should report your concerns to your supervisor, being as matter-of-fact as possible, provided that your supervisor is not directly or indirectly involved. If your supervisor is involved in any capacity, you should report your concerns to your human resources representative instead.

Ask for a Copy of Your Report (or Document Your Conversation Yourself)

When you report your concerns, you should receive a copy of the report. If you submit a written complaint, you should be sure to save a copy of your complaint for yourself before you submit it as well. If you have a conversation and you do not receive any written confirmation of your report, you should take notes to document your conversation as thoroughly as possible.

Continue to Meet Your Responsibilities as a Federal Employee

While it may be difficult, it is important that you do your best to continue meeting your responsibilities as a federal employee—provided that doing so does not put you in imminent danger. You do not want to put yourself in the position of facing accusations of deficient performance if it is not absolutely necessary to do so.

Learn About the Complaint Process

Finally, to ensure that you understand what you can expect as you move forward, you should learn as much as you can about the complaint process. In most cases, filing a hostile work environment claim as a federal employee starts with submitting a complaint to the EEOC. Strict rules and deadlines apply, so it is critical that you have a clear understanding of what is required.

Schedule a Confidential Consultation with a Federal Employment Lawyer Today

Do you need to know more about filing a hostile work environment claim as a federal employee? If so, we encourage you to contact us promptly for more information. To discuss your situation with an experienced federal employment lawyer in confidence, please call 410-514-6099 or send us a message online today.