If you have a great working relationship with your boss consider yourself lucky, because most folks are not as fortunate as you. By virtue of its formal nature, the typical relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate often involves some degree of friction. The severity of this friction can range from polite disagreement to outright abuse.

We often hear horror stories from folks who feel that their boss is abusive and harassing. They dread going in to work, live in constant fear while they are at work, and are unable to stop thinking about their boss after they leave work. The hostile work environment spills over into their personal lives, and leads to depression, anxiety, or worse. Seeing no other way to escape the abuse, these folks finally muster the courage to do something about it and call an attorney for help.

Although employees are often under the impression that all forms of bad treatment at work are prohibited by law, that is not the case. The law does not require supervisors to be warm, kind, gentle, or polite. The law is not a civility code. While we can all agree that all types of harassment are equally distasteful, harassment is unlawful only if based on one of the characteristics protected by federal or state anti-discrimination laws. Therefore, the critical question in determining whether a hostile work environment is illegal is the motivating reason for the abuse. Some supervisors abuse their subordinates because they are just plain mean. Others do it because they enjoy the “power trip.” Others still may be hostile towards a particular employee because the employee is not doing their job. The reality of it is that there can be a million reasons why a supervisor might be mean to an employee, but not every form of harassment can support a lawsuit.

Federal law prohibiting harassment is derived basically from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it unlawful for an employer to harass an employee because of his or her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Most states have their own laws prohibiting employment harassment which often overlap and sometimes exceed the coverage of Title VII and other federal laws. For example, the California Constitution protects against employment harassment on the basis of sex, race, creed, color, and national and ethnic origin. Similarly, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits harassment on the basis of sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, age or military and veteran status. Because there are many different sources of anti-harassment laws on the books which make workplace harassment illegal, it can be difficult for an employee to determine if what they are going through is illegal.

The best way for any employee to figure out if the hostile working environment they work in is illegal is to consult an experienced employment lawyer. An attorney well versed in employment law, should be able to quickly determine if the harassment is illegal, and chart out the proper course of action to protect the employee and his rights.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is not legal advice. The Akopyan Law Firm does not provide legal advice unless and until it is formally retained, and an attorney client contract is signed. Each case is unique. The laws may or may not apply to your particular situation. This should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney licensed or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions may have laws and regulations that differ substantially from one another. The Akopyan Law Firm does not provide legal services, or practice law outside of the State of California. You should always consult an attorney in your jurisdiction regarding any specific legal issue. If you have any questions about your rights, it is best to speak with an experienced employment attorney.