Add me to the list of employment lawyers and HR professionals who bristle when they hear the term "hostile work environment" misused.
Many people’s work environments are occasionally hostile. Few of us get to work in a job where we never have to deal with rude or obnoxious people. But that doesn’t mean we’ve experienced a "hostile work environment."
Fisher v. San Pedro Peninsula Hospital, 214 Cal.App.3d 590 (1989), is the first California state court decision to define the term (although federal courts had been discussing it since at least 1982). What all the cases make clear is that, by definition, a hostile work environment has to be discriminatory. A hostile work environment exists if someone is being subjected to abuse in the workplace because of their gender or race or some other protected category.
The Fair Employment and Housing Act, like Title VII and similar laws, is intended to prohibit discrimination in employment. These laws are not, as the Supreme Court has observed regarding Title VII, intended to act as a "general civility code." If there’s not a discriminatory motive, those laws aren’t implicated. No one’s saying let your employees harass each other mercilessly as long as they’re not being prejudiced. Just call it bullying or rudeness or offensive behavior — something other than a hostile work environment.