One of the most overused terms in today’s workplace is “hostile work environment”. Many employees believe their environment is a “hostile work environment” prohibited under applicable law. But the reality is that simply having a difficult boss or supervisor does not make the environment a hostile work environment under the law. The recent decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Daniels v. Pike County Commissioners reinforces this point.
Ms. Daniels, who worked as a secretary in the Pike County, Ohio Prosecutor’s office, claimed that Mr. Junk, the Pike County Prosecutor, subjected her to a hostile work environment because of her sex. The Court rejected her claim because none of the incidents Daniels pointed to were acts of harassment based on her sex. The Court found that Junk’s treatment of Daniels was not based on his sexual attraction to Daniels or based on a hostility toward females. Instead, the proof showed that Junk was a difficult boss for both male and female subordinates.
In rejecting Daniels’ claim the Court reiterated that Title VII is not a “general civility code for the American workplace”. This means that acts of harassment will not be illegal under Title VII or similar state employment laws unless the harassment is based on sex, race or another protected class. The conduct may, however, be illegal under a state tort law theory.
Employers, if you have a supervisor who is known to be a difficult boss or a “jerk” make sure you investigate any complaints about his or her conduct and take appropriate steps to address it – which may include training and/or discipline. Just because a supervisor’s conduct may not create a hostile work environment, it could still disrupt your workplace and result in low employee morale, loss of productivity and, potentially, an expensive lawsuit.