Is a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?

A hostile work environment is illegal if it's based out of protected characteristics such as race, sex, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation, or another type of protected characteristic. Examples of this would be if somebody uses a racial epithet or a racial slur at work, if somebody touches you in an intimate or sexualized or provocative manner, that's an example of a hostile work environment. For religion, if somebody says something disparaging about your religion, that's a hostile work environment. Or if somebody says a derogatory remark about your sexual orientation. At Phillips & Associates, we handle cases dealing with hostile work environment of all kinds every day. So if you believe that you've been the victim of a hostile work environment contact Phillips & Associates today.

Employment Discrimination Attorneys Assisting New York City Employees

A hostile work environment is one that is continually abusive or severely harassing, such that it alters the terms and conditions of your employment. It is illegal and actionable when the harassment is based on protected characteristics like race, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or age. If you are wondering whether a hostile work environment is illegal, you should contact an experienced attorney about your claim. At Phillips & Associates, our New York City hostile work environment lawyers regularly deal with these claims and can discuss what happened in your particular situation with you to determine whether we should bring a claim on your behalf.

Is a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?

Federal, state, and local laws provide protection with regard to many different protected characteristics, including race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, genetic information, and more. In general, there are more protected characteristics under state and local laws than there are under federal laws. With regard to sexual orientation, for instance, sexual orientation discrimination is implicitly prohibited by the category of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but it is expressly prohibited under the New York City Human Rights Law.

Federal laws often apply only to larger workplaces—those with 15 or more employees. In addition, the laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) require you to bring a charge before filing a lawsuit and cap your damages if you are able to recover them in a lawsuit. In many cases, you are better off bringing your hostile work environment claim under local law.

A hostile work environment claim requires you to establish that the harassment was based on your membership in a protected class. It must have been so frequent or so severe that it changed the terms and conditions of your employment. For example, if your boss touches you in an intimate or provocative way, this is likely to be viewed as a hostile work environment by a jury. Similarly, if coworkers use racial epithets or slurs, this is also likely to be seen as a hostile work environment.

Reporting an Illegal Hostile Work Environment

If you face a hostile work environment, you should confront your harasser and ask them to stop. In some cases, this fixes the problem. If you laugh or smile in order to be polite, it may not give the impression that you want the harassing conduct to stop. However, there are many instances in which someone is clear that they want the harassment to stop, but this results in a worsening of the situation.

You should report the harassment to your employer using the method outlined in your employment handbook or contract when possible. You should document or memorialize what happened with the harasser and also report what happened to your employer in writing as appropriate. Your employer is supposed to take appropriate corrective steps to make the harassment stop.

When an employer fails to take adequate measures, it may be possible to bring a hostile work environment claim under federal, state, or local laws. Each law provides protection, but there are differences among them that may make a difference to your claim.


In most cases, you can recover the greatest amount of compensation by bringing your hostile work environment claim under the New York City Human Rights Law. If you are able to establish your claim, damages that may be available include:

  • Compensatory damages for mental distress
  • Back pay and front pay
  • Out-of-pocket expenses
  • Punitive damages if the employer's conduct was egregious
  • Attorneys' fees

Explore Your Options with a New York City Lawyer

If you have felt demeaned or humiliated due to harassment at work, and you are wondering whether a hostile work environment is illegal, you should call us. Our New York City attorneys can discuss your situation in detail and determine whether you may have a basis for filing a claim under the applicable local, state, or federal laws. Contact us online or call us at (866) 229-9441 to set up an appointment if you need a sexual harassment lawyer or assistance with another type of hostile work environment case. We battle employment discrimination in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island, as well as Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties and New Jersey.