Illinois Hostile Work Environment 101: What it is & How To Prevent It

Illinois Hostile Work Environment 101: What it is & How To Prevent It

What is a hostile work environment in Illinois? The phrase "hostile work environment" is a legal term that refers to conduct that makes work difficult or uncomfortable for an employee and unreasonably interferes with the employee's job performance and productivity.

This blog post will give you information about what constitutes unlawful workplace hostility in Illinois, how to handle it if it does happen to occur in your workplace, as well as ways to prevent these issues from happening at all! Read on for more!

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When does a negative atmosphere become a hostile work environment?

A common misconception is that a hostile work environment means it's generally unpleasant or negative. But, in the eyes of the law, there is a difference between workplace bullying and a hostile working environment. The reality is that for an office to be considered "hostile," behavior needs to go beyond minor inconveniences, crude jokes, or rudeness and meet the following legal criteria for a civil claim.

If you need help meeting the State's training requirements, try EasyLlama's easy sexual harassment training course for Illinois. Our modern training materials can help your company become compliant with the law and avoid unnecessary fines.

Legal Criteria for a Hostile Work Environment In Illinois

1) The behavior must be discriminatory.

A claim for a hostile workplace is considered by the law as discrimination based on race, gender, color, religion, and other factors such as sexual orientation. To be successful in proving this case, you must prove that there was discriminatory action against an employee because they were a protected class that is severe enough that these actions can only be classified under "hostile" conditions.

Because the legal claim falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Illinois Human Rights Act, an employee must be a member of a protected class to prove discrimination, and most cases involve sexual, racial, or religious harassment in some form.

As of January 1, 2020, the state of Illinois amended the Illinois Human Rights Act to expand the definition of unlawful discrimination to include actions based on an individual's actual or perceived protected status. In Illinois, these are:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • Religion;
  • National origin;
  • Ancestry;
  • Military status;
  • Sex;
  • Marital status;
  • Disability;
  • Order of protection status;
  • Age;
  • Sexual Orientation;
  • Pregnancy; or
  • Unfavorable discharge from military status.

2) The behavior must be unwelcome

To be considered harassment, the behavior needs to be unwelcome. There needs to be proof that the victim of the hostile behavior asked for it to stop (or reported it to human resources), but the behavior continued.

3) The behavior must be widespread

To receive the legal classification of a hostile work environment, the behavior must be pervasive and long-lasting. The conduct must be severe or widespread enough that a reasonable person would consider the environment intimidating, hostile, or abusive and not limited to one or two remarks or comments. Types of offensive conduct include offensive jokes, objects, pictures, name-calling, physical threats (or assaults), and interference or sabotage of work performance. Incidents of hostility need to be reported to human resources for documentation and intervention.

4) The issue must be severe

The hostile actions or communication must be severe enough to seriously disrupt the employee's ability to do their job or interfere with an employee's career progression. It must be severe enough to warrant legal action.

The 2019 amendment to IHRA states that employers are only held liable for harassment by non-managerial or non-supervisory employees if the employer is aware of the misconduct and fails to resolve it.

Examples of a Hostile Workplace

Harassment in the workplace can take many different forms. Harassers may make consistent offensive jokes or engage in name-calling. They may threaten fellow employees physically or verbally, ridicule or insult others, display offensive photographs- and even interfere with another person's work throughout the day.

While people are often most familiar with sexual harassment in the workplace- there is also racial harassment because of a colleague's race (or color), religious harassment due to someone not adhering to a specific religion, ́ gender-based discrimination because an employee might be pregnant or identifying as female; or nationality-based abuse which could occur if an immigrant were working here illegally. These are just a few ways that consistent harassment and discrimination can create a hostile work environment.

For example, a colleague who is brash, loud, and rude may be demonstrating obnoxious behavior, but it does not necessarily rise to the legal definition of a hostile workplace. However, a manager who yells or curses at you and makes consistent jokes or insults about your age, race, or gender is guilty of creating a hostile work environment.

Employees might also find themselves in an illegal hostile workplace after attempting or threatening to report behavior that breaks the law, such as harassment or discrimination, as retaliation for reporting the behavior.

Illinois Training Requirements

As of January 1, 2020, an amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA) requires all employers in the state to provide annual employee training on discrimination and sexual harassment prevention to all employees, and as of July 1, 2020, this provision applies to all businesses, regardless of size. These changes were a part of a series of new laws focused on the expansion of Illinois' protections against discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

The new amendment requires that every employer with employees working in Illinois must provide training that meets the minimum requirements set forth by the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) at least once a year starting in 2021. The training must include, at a minimum, an adequate explanation of sexual harassment, examples of unlawful conduct, a summary of federal and state laws in Illinois governing harassment and discrimination, and a summary of employer responsibilities. The IDHR does not require employers to submit their training documentation regularly. That said, employers may be asked to present evidence of training during audits or inspection, so it is a good idea to keep detailed records with the names of employees trained, dates of training, copies of the training materials and provider, and certificates of completion for each employee.

Failure to comply with Illinois' harassment training requirements may result in fines and penalties, depending on the employer's size and record of past offenses. Fines for compliance range from $500 to $5,000 per offense.

Fixing a Hostile Work Environment

Fixing a hostile work environment requires weeding out the hostile behaviors and communicating to employees that they will not be allowed to continue. Maintaining open and safe lines of communication is paramount to allowing employees space to discuss issues without fear of retaliation, as the first step in solving the problem is knowing that it exists. Engaging in difficult course-correcting conversations with the employee or groups of employees creating hostility is vital if you are going to keep your current staff in place.

At the end of the day, a rigorous training program to help your employees recognize the signs of workplace hostility, know how to report it, and how to handle it effectively, aside from having a workplace harassment law in Illinois -- is your most important ally in the war against a hostile work environment.

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