Workers Compensation tends to be talked about primarily in physical terms — an injury or illness, such as a broken arm or pneumonia, gathered due to workplace conditions or an on-the-job accident. There are other forms of workplace injury, however. We've spoken before about mental injuries, and today we're going to take a look at an area of Workers Comp that is not often discussed... filing for Workers Compensation as a result of a hostile workplace environment.
What is a Hostile Workplace Environment?
If the average employee spends eight hours a day at work, that's fully a third of our daily lives. While some may spend more time at work and some less, our jobs are still a deeply important aspect of life. When your job becomes something you dread due to hostility in the workplace, you may become desperate, depressed, and stressed beyond belief, wondering if you can file for Workers Compensation to find some respite.
To successfully file, you will need to meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment.
So, what is the definition of a hostile workplace? In short, it is a workplace environment in which doing your job becomes increasingly difficult or even impossible due to the hostile actions of a coworker or boss.
Generally, the phrase "hostile work environment" applies in situations of discrimination, not simply discord among workers. A coworker who is rude, even if it is rudeness aimed explicitly at a single employee, is not creating a legally-defined "hostile workplace". Violating discrimination laws (such as persistent sexual harassment or racial discrimination) would meet the definition.
In order to meet a legal definition that would support your Workers Compensation claim, your situation would need to match the following characteristics:
- The hostile actions and/or behavior must include actions against a protected classification, such as age, race, disability, or religion.
- A single problematic or offensive remark would not qualify — these actions must be pervasive, and should have been reported to HR for intervention to see if the problem can be solved within the workplace.
- The problem, if pervasive, has not been investigated or addressed in an effective manner by the business or organization, and the behavior continues.
- The hostile environment must be severe and disrupt the ability of the employee to perform their job duties or ability to progress or advance in their career. One example would be discrimination that costs the employee raises or promotions.
- There must be the reasonable assumption or knowledge that the employer knew about these actions or behaviors and did not intervene. If this is true, the employer themselves may be held liable in some cases for the creation of the hostile work environment.
As you can see, a true "hostile work environment" doesn't simply consist of a boss that seems generally mean or aggressive, or a coworker whose actions are annoying. Instead, the situation must involve discrimination against federally protected classes.
What should you do if your situation meets this criteria?
What to Do in a Hostile Work Environment
First off — make your problem known, and ask for help. If you've never asked the offending person to stop, you'll have difficulty proving your case. Ask them to cease the discriminatory behavior. If this doesn't work, seek help from management or Human Resources. In the case of discrimination by someone in Human Resources, you may need to look for help from even higher up or even from the owner of the business.
Document each step you take, being sure to print and save hard copies of any emails you receive or send. Take notes during in-person meetings. Ask for copies of any documentation that HR or management creates regarding the situation.
If you end up having to take legal action, these documents will be essential in proving when HR or management became aware of the situation and what steps they took to eliminate the problem. If your employer refuses to share their documentation, it becomes even more important that you maintain your own copies.
The discrimination may cease at this point. Give management or HR time to deal with the problem. If it continues, either with no intervention or with ineffective intervention, move on to the next step and contact legal representation. Bring all documentation with you to your initial consultation, as it will help to keep the process working quickly and efficiently.
What to Do If You Complain and Face Retaliation
While unfortunate, it's not unknown for an employee to speak with management or HR regarding discrimination, only to find themselves subject to even more aggressive attacks afterward or even facing unemployment due to speaking up. It is illegal for an employer to take negative action against an employee who takes formal action to address discriminatory behavior in the workplace. Document any disciplinary actions or firing and keep on-hand when you speak with a lawyer or legal representative.
Stay calm, request copies of all paperwork regarding the behavior you believe to be retaliatory, and make note if security recordings or video may exist that will help to prove your claim.
Who is Liable for a Hostile Workplace?
Legally speaking, the employer is automatically liable for discriminatory behavior in the workplace unless the employer in question can prove that they took all possible appropriate measures to prevent or end the discriminatory behavior, or if they can prove that the employee in question did not seek help prior to filing a claim. This is why it's important to take every possible step within the workplace to solve the problem before taking legal action.
Under South Carolina law (and alongside the EEOC, who may also investigate the claim), if the South Carolina Human Affairs Coalition does find evidence that an employer illegally allowed discrimination resulting in a hostile work environment, the company may be forced to hire an individual, reinstate their position if they were fired in retaliation, upgrade in the case of missed promotions, or even remit back pay to the affected employee.
Dealing with a Hostile Workplace? We're Here to Help
When filing for Workers Compensation due to a hostile workplace environment, it's essential to be sure that every possible step has been taken prior to filing your claim. Bluestein Attorneys has experience in Workers Compensation cases, including traumatic brain injuries (or TBI), mental injuries, and more. We'd be happy to sit down with you to take a look at your unique situation and help you to decide on what step you may need to take next. Reach us by phone at (803) 674-8817 or contact us today to request your consultation.