Employers Should Investigate Hostile Work Environment Claims

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DanaLeisingerMy employee came to me complaining of a “hostile work environment,” which appears to be a verbal situation, not one of sexual harassment. Am I required to take action?

Claims of a hostile work environment that give rise to liability are those based on a protected category—such as race, gender, gender identity, religion, etc. (see list of protected categories in your poster “California Law Prohibits Workplace Discrimination and Harassment”).

The instant question poses the more difficult issue—that of hostility which is not based on a protected category. Although not technically illegal, when an employee is being abusive, yelling, swearing, etc., that behavior creates a negative office environment that reduces productivity and can lead to a workers’ compensation stress claim.

It is important to investigate all claims of hostility and determine the validity of the complaint accordingly so as to avoid these negative results.

Indeed, this scenario underscores the requirement for an employer of 50 or more employees to provide what is called “abusive conduct” training as part of the two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to supervisors every two years. This type of training gives the employer a chance to be proactive in managing the office environment.

So in answer to the question posed above—yes, it is necessary to investigate a claim of abusive conduct. Even if the claim is not based on a protected category, in addition to the risks noted above, these types of claims frequently ripen to a claim of hostility that is protected.

To avoid a negative office environment, it is advisable to mandate the “abuser” to get additional training.


The Labor Law Helpline is a service to California Chamber of Commerce preferred and executive members. For expert explanations of labor laws and Cal/OSHA regulations, not legal counsel for specific situations, call (800) 348-2262 or submit your question at www.hrcalifornia.com.

Staff Contact: Dana Leisinger 

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Dana Leisinger
About Dana Leisinger
Dana Leisinger joined the CalChamber in 2000 and currently serves as an HR adviser. She has advised employers on matters such as employment law, wrongful termination, discrimination, sexual harassment and wage and hour issues. She also has conducted seminars and training and guided employers through various levels of governmental investigations. Leisinger holds a J.D. from the McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific.