Some jobs are more difficult than others, and employees who choose to work in tough fields may have to develop a thicker skin. When it comes to deciding whether a work site fosters a "hostile work environment," courts typically decide whether harassment is objectively abusive based on the circumstances of the worker's job.
For example, employees who deal with mentally unstable patients on a daily basis must show that any abuse they withstand is beyond what one would expect in that setting.
Recent case: Terrence Johnson, an African-American male, worked as a certified nurse's assistant at a San Antonio nursing home that cares primarily for elderly patients with mental diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's.
When a patient with serious mental health problems made racial comments to Johnson, he complained to. That same patient later claimed that Johnson physically threatened him, so the nursing home fired Johnson.
The EEOC sued on Johnson's behalf, claiming the nursing home forced him to work in a racially hostile environment. The court had to decide if the patient's conduct was abusive.
Result: The court concluded that the patient's name-calling was severe, but also that the harassment didn't objectively interfere with Johnson's work performance. When a job requires employees to deal with people with failing mental capacities, verbal abuse is "not merely an inconvenience associated with [the] job; it was an important part of the job itself."
Since Johnson worked in an environment where most people could not control what they said or did, it was reasonable to think he might have to put up with such verbal abuse. (EEOC v. Nexion Health at Broadway, Inc. No. 05-51770, 5th Cir., 2006)