What is Workplace Harassment and "Hostile Work Environment"?
One of the most misunderstood terms in employment law is harassment or "hostile work environment". Many, if not most, people assume that if any of their co-workers or managers is literally being hostile toward them, i.e. - not being nice or friendly, or if the manager "harasses" them by disagreeing with them, or accusing them of being a bad worker, or yelling at them, or changing their hours or other terms of employment, or otherwise repeatedly bugging them, this makes it an unlawful harassment.
However, "hostile work environment" or unlawful harassment is a unique legal term that requires proof of specific legal elements.
To have a valid harassment claim , a conduct toward an employee by another employee or manager must be (1) sufficiently severe and pervasive as to alter a reasonable person's working conditions; and (2) be motivated by discriminatory reason. In other words, being treated badly and unfairly is not illegal unless the underlying reason is discriminatory (i.e. due to your race, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, etc..) and there is evidence to connect the two.
Thus, if your manager is rude to you or overly demanding, or if he issues you unfair performance reviews and unfounded warnings, and he does this for non-discriminatory reasons, even if these reasons are extremely hurtful or unfair (i.e. disliking you personally, being on a power trip, etc...), it is not illegal unless, again, the underlying reason is discriminatory and there is at least some evidence to prove the same. Likewise, if your co-worker is being disrespectful to you or yelling at you and your employer doesn't do anything about it, it's also not illegal, unless there is a credible threat to your safety. "Credible" threat means something more than being yelled at or similar common gestures of non-physical confrontation.
How you feel about the unfair and hurtful treatment and what kind of physical or mental distress symptoms that treatment causes you has very little no relevance to making a harassment claim (although in some cases these kinds of health issues can be grounds for a workers compensation claim, which is a separate process).
Isolated Incidents of Harassment Might or Might Not Be Enough to Make a Claim
Generally (although not always), a single or isolated incident, such as one or two racial or sexual jokes alone is not sufficient to provide a basis for a hostile work environment claim, as the conduct must be sufficiently "pervasive", that is - it has to be repeated. In some cases, however, a single incident might be enough (i.e. where the incident is sufficiently egregious and/or where the harasser is the manager, and where the demotion or termination of the victim of harassment follows shortly after the incident and is clearly motivated by that incident). It is also important to keep in mind the "reasonable person" standard in the harassment claim, i.e. - the courts don't rely on an employee's subjective feelings of being harassed but apply an objective standard, asking the following question: would a reasonable person, who is not particularly sensitive, find the conduct to be sufficient offensive and intolerable as to alter his working conditions.
Sexual harassment can refer to either (1) repeated, unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome touching, or highly offensive, sexual degrading remarks toward an employee; or (2) quid quo pro harassment, i.e. conditioning an employee's employment, promotion or other benefits on submitting to sexual advances.
Racial / Religious Harassment
This type of harassment usually involves repeated racial or ethnic slur, mockery, degrading remarks, etc. Whether a claim for unlawful racial harassment can be made depends on the (1) severity and (2) frequency of that type of behavior, as well as whether those remarks are made by a co-worker or a managerial employee.
In the context of ADA/FEHA disability discrimination, for a disabled worker to bring a hostile work environment claim related to disability, there has to be evidence of repeated verbal and physical abuse at workplace because of his disability, such as repeatedly calling him offensive names (i.e. fucking no-good cripple, etc.), repeatedly and intentionally denying accommodations, threatening with physical violence, or repeatedly denying urgent medical attention when necessary, or repeatedly making fun of the disability.
Typical evidence of age harassment would include repeatedly calling an oder worker various ageists nicknames such as "father", "dad", "old times" or even "old fart", encouraging an employee to retire, and making fun of him being slower than before or slower than other employees, stating that the company needs "fresh blood" and "younger faces" or "younger ways of thinking." All these examples are based on real cases.
There is no bright line rule as to what conduct is considered severe and pervasive within the definition of a hostile work environment claim. However, many prior California case provide guidance on what kind of evidence is needed to support a harassment or a hostile work environment claim. If you believe that you have been subjected to a hostile work environment or unlawful harassment, you should consult with a experienced employment lawyer to discuss what your legal and practical options are, as far as addressing and remedying the situation.
What to do if you are simply treated badly, but the treatment doesn't qualify as unlawful harassment under the law?
This is a common and challenging situation, because there is no legal solution to it. You have several options: (1) complain about the person who gives you trouble to the appropriate managers, if you believe it will help resolve the issue; or (2) start looking for another job or try to transfer to another department within the company and away from the bully, if you believe that complaining would be pointless or if it would even lead to retaliation against you (including being fired). In many other cases, there can be other creative solutions, including negotiating a severance package in exchange for resignation.