What creates a hostile work environment?
There is no hard-and-fast definition of what sorts of behavior create a “hostile work environment.”
But in legal terms, it’s when a pattern of harassing behavior exists, and that behavior makes it difficult for victims to perform their jobs properly, but it doesn’t result in a “tangible employment action” the sort of do-this-or-you’re-fired abuses commonly known as quid pro quo harassment.
The most obvious example is a workplace where men routinely make sexual jokes about women, ogle female co-workers, and put up risque pictures of women or circulate porn or sexual jokes on their computers.
Since this behavior is the norm, any woman who wants to work in this setting has to put up with it or leave. And that’s illegal. It’s not illegal—though perhaps not wise—if both genders behave this way.
Why the difference? Because if a woman does suffer a “tangible employment action,” then the employer is liable, period.
In a hostile environment case, though employers can avoid liability—even for actions by supervisors (though the bar is higher there)—by showing they had strong policies against harassment, had an effective way for victims to make claims and to investigate those claims, and took effective remedial action.
By the way, “hostile environments” need not be just sexual.
The standard also applies on the basis of race, color, gender (without sexual conduct), national origin, religion, age and disability.
The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.