‘Critical’ and ‘hostile’ work environment not the same thing

If you’re subject to pervasive harassment, intimidation and/or abuse and it’s so bad that you can’t work there anymore, you may be able to bring a “hostile environment” claim.

In some cases, these claims have resulted in employers paying significant damages.

However, employees need to clear a pretty high bar to establish a hostile environment. As a recent Pennsylvania case shows, just having a mean boss who maintains an unpleasant working environment isn’t necessarily enough.

In that case, Cassandra Ballard-Carter worked for mutual-fund company Vanguard Group in an administrative role. In 2011, she began reporting to a new boss, who she claimed criticized her spelling, grammar and communication skills in an unpleasant and sometimes profane manner. She told human resources she felt the boss was creating a hostile environment. HR investigated and concluded that the boss could improve his management style, but his conduct hadn’t risen to the level she claimed.

In 2013, Ballard-Carter was diagnosed with partial hearing loss and dyslexia. She continued to receive critical feedback from the boss, who she claimed was unsympathetic about her disabilities. A few months after receiving a negative performance review, she took medical leave for a hip problem and never returned.

She later sued Vanguard, bringing a hostile environment claim. But a federal judge dismissed the case, stating that while Ballard-Carter certainly seemed to be encountering high levels of criticism and sporadic potentially offensive comments, the law does not require a happy workplace and the boss’s conduct didn’t constitute pervasive abuse.

Employers need to beware, however. The standard can be somewhat subjective and another judge might have disagreed. Meanwhile, there are countless other reasons why it’s a bad idea to keep supervisors around who treat workers badly. So even if you don’t end up losing a trial over it, it’s a good idea to try to rein in any horrible bosses who might work for you.