We have a lot of potential clients come to us because they are working in what they consider to be a hostile work environment. Their boss yells at them, belittles them, intimidates them, mocks them, etc. Sometimes this treatment is constant. Sometimes this treatment is intermittent but extreme. But generally speaking, these are not petty slights or simple annoyances; it is something more. Overall, these employees are working in an environment a reasonable employee would consider hostile, intimidating, or abusive.

Common sense would dictate that an employer should not be allowed to subject its employees to such treatment. However, unfortunately, there is no federal or Texas law that broadly protects employees from a hostile work environment.

Similarly, Texas has no general, overarching law that protects employees from bosses who are bullies. If your boss is a bully to you just because he or she is a bully to everyone, that does not entitle you to protection. Indeed, you would be shocked by how many times a company’s defense is that the boss is a bully to everyone, an equal opportunity bully. Yes, that is their DEFENSE! They are not denying the bullying but rather arguing that the bullying is allowed under the law.

So, you may be asking yourself if this treatment always legal. The answer is no. Under certain circumstances a hostile work environment and bullying can move from what is unethical to something that is potentially illegal.

When does this happen? This happens when the employer’s motivation is based on an employee’s membership in a protected class or because the worker engaged in some sort of protected activity. To put it another way, it is when your employer is targeting you because of who you are or what you did, if that characteristic or activity is entitled to protection under a federal or state law.

Indeed, this is confusing. Perhaps the best way to illustrate is with some examples.

Example one:

Your boss is a bully to your entire team. He yells at everyone and treats everyone terribly. He is not singling out any individual employee or subgroup of employees and treating them differently. He is a bully to everyone because he is simply a bully. Shockingly, this is not illegal in Texas.

Example two:

Your boss is a bully to women. He yells at all the women and treats them terribly but treats men fine. He is singling out women and treating them differently than men. This would likely be illegal because he is not an equal-opportunity bully, he is a sexist bully who is targeting female workers because of their sex.

Example three:

You are an employee of a state or local government entity and you blow the whistle by reporting in good faith a violation of law to an appropriate law enforcement authority. In response, your boss starts intimidating and harassing you. He singles you out and treats you differently than other employees because of what you did. This would likely be illegal because he is targeting you and subjecting you to a hostile work environment because you engaged in what is considered protected activity under the law.

So, what is the takeaway from these examples? The takeaway is that it is not about how you are being treated—it is about why you are being treated that way. This makes our jobs as employment lawyers a lot more difficult. We do not have the luxury of simply looking at the egregiousness of the treatment. What we have to do is much more challenging. We have to figure out the motive behind the employer’s action. This is not always easy, and it is certainly not fair. Everyone should be protected from bullying and harassment no matter what the reason. But in Texas, that is not the law.

If you think you are being subjected to a hostile work environment for any reason, you should schedule a consult with a Texas Employment Lawyer so we can discuss the specifics of your case.

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Photo of Julie St. John Julie St. John

We asked Julie L. St. John, an experienced Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C., to impart her candid answers to a range of questions. After reading, you will be more more informed on the well-respected reputation that Ms.

We asked Julie L. St. John, an experienced Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C., to impart her candid answers to a range of questions. After reading, you will be more more informed on the well-respected reputation that Ms. St. John carries.

1. Why did you start practicing labor and employment law?

Because I care about the rights of employees and believe all workers should be treated fairly. 

2. If you could write a new law, what would it do?

Guarantee a living wage for all workers.

 3. Besides Rob Wiley, P.C., what is the most interesting job that you have had?

I worked as the beer cart girl at a golf course in college. 

4. What’s the best part of living in Houston?

Houston is clearly the best city in Texas, way better than Austin or Dallas. The people are wonderful, and the food is delicious. The only downside is the traffic, which is why I refuse to go outside of the loop (with a key exception for Ikea).

 5. If you were not practicing labor and employment law what would you be?

I would start a gardening/landscaping company with animals that do the work. The goats would eat the weeds, the pigs would till the ground, and the chickens would keep the bugs away.

6. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

To have another tool to use to fight for things I believe in. I’ve always wanted to change the world.

7. What do you do when you’re not practicing law?

Travel, watch Ohio State football, and work to make my cat instafamous.

8. What’s your favorite legal movie

The Pelican Brief because it features Tulane Law!

9. Have you ever learned something from one of your clients?

I learn something from almost all of my clients. Most importantly, courage.

10. Who do you most admire as a lawyer?

Kalandra Wheeler

Julie L. St. John is a Trial Attorney in the Houston office of Wiley Wheeler, P.C. She graduated from Ohio State University with her bachelor’s degree in 2007. Ms. St. John then graduated from Tulane University School of Law in 2017.