Employers take note: ‘Hostile environment’ claims can be costly

yelling at employee AdobeStock 101725144 768x511A “hostile” work environment is one where an employee is constantly confronted with offensive behavior by co-workers or supervisors. This can include sexually charged or bigoted comments and jokes, repeated requests to engage in sexual activity, taunting or insulting personal comments. An employer that doesn’t properly investigate workers’ complaints of a hostile environment, or that investigates but fails to take proper action in response, can face discrimination and sexual harassment claims, as Kansas City, Missouri recently found out.

In that case, LaDonna Nunley, an African-American woman who had worked as a chemist for Kansas City’s water department for 24 years, claimed that a co-worker had engaged in a pervasive pattern of offensive speech directed toward her, including comments referencing genitalia and comments comparing President Barack Obama to a bowel movement. She said she reported the comments to supervisors but they failed to discipline the co-worker.

Ultimately Nunley, who also claimed that she was passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified, younger white workers, brought age, sex and race discrimination claims against the city along with a claim of hostile work environment.

The case went to trial. The jury ruled against her on the discrimination claims but did find that she was subjected to a hostile work environment. As a result, it awarded her a significant amount to compensate her for the harm she suffered and even more in what are called “punitive” damages — extra money designed to punish a person or an organization for especially bad behavior.