Did a hostile work environment cause a nurse to resign?

A nurse reader quit her job after her nurse manager accused her of more than 20 missteps in patient care. The nurse manager also informed the CNO of these accusations. Although she wasn’t fired, the nurse resigned because of what she described as a “hostile work environment.” She wondered if she had any legal grounds to pursue that claim.

A “hostile work environment” is something that has only recently been described by the EEOC, since Title VII, the key federal statute that prohibits discrimination in the workplace, does not expressly define “hostile work environment” or “harassment.”

Several federal court cases decided since 1971 have created a definition of a hostile work environment. Because Title VII prohibits discrimination with regard to terms, conditions and privileges of employment when exercised against protected groups (race, gender, religion, color or creed), any work environment that does so may be a hostile work environment.

Totality of circumstances determines hostile environment

The EEOC now follows a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in Harris v. Forklift Systems, which established the “totality of the circumstances” when evaluating whether a hostile work environment exists.

The totality of the circumstances might include harassment of a sexual nature, more severe discipline for workers of the protected classes than for those workers who are not members of the class, ethnic slurs or other forms of disparaging communication.

Whatever the behavior, the end result of these circumstances is an inability of the worker to do his or her job or interfere with the employee’s career advancement.

The reader’s question does not provide details describing her workplace environment. She only states she was confronted with 24 allegations of wrongly provided patient care. Most likely, such allegations alone would not rise to the level of being an example of a hostile work environment.

However, if the RN was “targeted” for these allegations because of her being a member of the protected classes under Title VII, and other workers who were not members had similarly provided wrongful care but were not threatened with firing, perhaps a different evaluation of their conduct, based on hostile workplace characteristics, might be reached.

And, if the RN had pervasive, consistent allegations about her patient care prior to this confrontation, resulting in the RN’s inability to provide good patient care, she may have experienced a hostile work environment.

The RN did not raise any concerns about being targeted because of being a member of a protected class or complain about any pervasive, consistent allegations by her nurse manager or other colleagues. But, if she had voiced apprehensions about how she was being treated to her superiors and/or the human resource department and nothing was done to stop the conduct, she may have experienced a hostile workplace.

It is unfortunate the RN did not grieve the allegations against her through her employer’s grievance policy. Doing so may have resolved the situation and allowed her to continue to work there, or at least leave her position more on her own terms.

Seek legal advice before taking action

Her submitted question underscores the importance of seeking legal advice, either with a nurse attorney or attorney who represents employees, before taking an action that may not be in the employee’s best interest. Such a consultation would have helped the RN hear her options in the situation and be placed in the best position to successfully challenge the allegations.

The RN can still seek legal advice at this juncture. Carefully detailing her work situation with the attorney before the confrontation, during the confrontation and afterword will be essential. She also will need to speak with the attorney about the specifics of the poor patient care she allegedly provided.

The nurse also can file a complaint alleging a hostile work environment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission without an attorney. Her approach in detailing all the facts surrounding the situation will be required. The commission would then evaluate whether she experienced a hostile work environment and provide her with a right to sue letter. At this juncture, she would need to retain an attorney to represent her in the lawsuit.

I have one additional comment on the RN’s submitted question. It is assumed her work conditions did not change after she was confronted with the allegations about patient care. She did not indicate the time frame involved after being confronted with the allegations and her resignation. However, thinking things were not going to get better, she resigned rather than be fired. Her resignation, then, was not voluntary. This is called a constructive discharge. Legal recourse is available if applicable to her situation, so she also should discuss this issue with her attorney during the consultation.

In short, you may not work in the best of all work environments. Your co-workers may be rude and loud, your nurse manager may not be the best leader and your nurse colleague may not be overly supportive. But this type of work environment does not rise to the level of a hostile workplace.

Be certain you get the legal advice you need if you find yourself in a work situation that you find intolerable before you impulsively act in a manner not in your best legal interest.

Editor’s note: Nancy Brent’s posts are designed for educational purposes only and are not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need advice on a specific incident or work situation should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. Visit The American Association of Nurse Attorneys website to search its attorney referral database by state.

Courses related to ‘work environment issues’

CE392-60: Sexual Harassment and Retaliation
(1 contact hr)

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that constitutes an unlawful employment practice in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This statute prohibits employment-based discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, national origin or sex in all aspects of the employment process, from recruiting through termination. As the result of a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, plaintiffs need not prove that they have …read more

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