The workplace should be a location where everyone feels wanted and comfortable—a place where employees can focus on getting their work done and performing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Sadly, the reality is that this isn’t the case for many people throughout the country. In a joint study from the Rand Corp., UCLA, and Harvard Medical School, almost one out of every five workers said that they face a hostile environment at their jobs. The study calls this number “disturbingly high,” indicating that being in a hostile work environment is something too many people face today.
A hostile work environment can have serious detrimental effects on the worker experiencing it and the business itself. Employees may feel humiliation, discomfort, low job satisfaction, or even outright abuse. In addition to this, companies can experience decreased productivity and high turnover, not to mention the sullied reputation and possible lawsuits that accompany a hostile work environment. Addressing this issue and preventing such an environment from developing should be a top priority for all leaders and executives.
In this article, learn what legally qualifies as a hostile work environment, the types of behaviors to watch out for, outward indications of a hostile workplace, and what you can do if you find yourself in one.
What is a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment is a workplace where an employee feels frightened, uncomfortable, or unwelcome while at their job. At these organizations, workplace conflict is common, and arguments arise with frequency. If you have feelings of anxiety or dread about work even when you’re away from the office, you may work in a hostile work environment.
What Behaviors Are Considered Criteria For a Hostile Work Environment?
Just because you feel uncomfortable while at your job doesn’t mean you’re experiencing an abusive work environment or workplace harassment. The qualifications for a hostile work environment fall under specific legal parameters. These parameters of harassment were outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the American Disabilities Act of 1990. Harassment, as defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), states in part:
“Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history). Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
A Closer Look at Harassment
While many people understand the basics of what constitutes discrimination, it’s important to point out a few items from this definition and how they might apply to a hostile work environment and workplace harassment. One crucial factor is that the behavior must qualify as pervasive. That means that a one-time action or comment doesn’t necessarily serve as evidence of a hostile work environment. To qualify, it must be something someone has done repeatedly or something systemic within the organization.
Conduct can also qualify for a hostile work environment if it’s severe enough. That would indicate it has an impact on a person’s ability to do their job well. If a behavior creates a disruption of any sort or has an effect that makes a worker’s job more difficult, it may fall under the definition of a hostile work environment. Incidents that happened only once but are severe enough, such as sexual harassment, can also qualify as an abusive work environment.
Behaviors Found in a Hostile Work Environment
The behaviors most commonly found in a hostile work environment come in many forms. It can be a subtle comment made many times or play out as a serious abuse of authority. These remarks, actions, or behaviors may come from supervisors and managers, or they may come from your coworkers. They can even originate from customers and clients. The following are some of the most common behaviors employees experience.
A case of victimization may happen when bullying is present. This may take the form of a prank against a coworker, which results in their humiliation. A manager constantly targeting a specific employee for ridicule in front of others also creates a hostile work environment. If someone feels like they are a consistent recipient of bullying tactics, whether in-person or online, they may have grounds to claim workplace harassment.
Threats of Punishment
Another way a hostile work environment may present itself is through threats of punishment or intimidation from management. While supervisors often need to address poorly performing employees, some punishments go too far. The same goes for threats of punishment. If an employee constantly works with the fear of losing their job or having pay or benefits slashed without just cause, their work environment can feel unwelcoming.
Hostile behaviors can also show up as discrimination. Perhaps a worker was passed up for a promotion because of their race, or maybe an employee wasn’t invited to an after-business-hours party because she’s a woman. These are examples of discrimination that can contribute to a hostile work environment.
Other Inappropriate Behaviors
Other behaviors can make people uncomfortable and feel out of place at work. Inappropriate comments or jokes can leave people feeling uneasy, especially if made frequently. Uncalled for aggression in conversation can create discomforting situations. Vulgar remarks and constant put-downs can lead to hostility and a general desire to fear the workplace. All of these behaviors should be top of mind for leaders as they seek to create a welcoming and safe work environment.
Indications of a Hostile Work Environment
When you’re in the thick of things, it can be challenging to pick out specific instances of a hostile work environment. Perhaps you’ve never personally witnessed one of the incidents or events listed above. When this happens, it can be difficult to believe your workplace creates so much hostility. However, other effects may indicate you have an abusive work environment. If you see or experience any of the following, further investigate:
- Burnout: Employees can experience work burnout for any number of reasons. One reason may be due to not feeling comfortable in the office.
- Conflict: If workplace conflict happens regularly, it may indicate hostility in the environment.
- High Stress: A hostile work environment can contribute to stress and anxiety, even when employees are away from work.
- Absenteeism: Another warning sign of a hostile workplace is increasing levels of absenteeism, where people miss work frequently. This may indicate employees want to avoid their jobs as much as possible due to the environment.
- High Turnover: The same holds true if talented people leave your organization with alarming regularity. A high turnover rate shows people aren’t happy there, which may signify a hostile work environment.
- Poor Communication: If there’s poor communication at work, hostility in the workplace may be a cause. When people don’t trust each other or enjoy other people’s company, they avoid communicating. Poor communication can be an outside indicator that something much deeper is causing problems.
How to Deal With a Hostile Work Environment
If someone is experiencing a hostile work environment, some cynics may ask, “Why not just leave your job?” Unfortunately, that’s not an option for many people. Leaving a job means leaving behind a secure source of income. It also means introducing a great degree of uncertainty surrounding your future. Some workers simply accept putting up with the environment, even at the cost of their emotional and physical well-being. However, this doesn’t have to be the case: Know you have options. The following tips can help you either deal with a hostile work environment or ensure one never develops.
1. Establish the Right Policies
From the start, your company’s policies should ensure the work environment remains filled with respect, acceptance, and comfort. This goes beyond simply following employment law. Instead, it should set expectations to avoid harassment of any type and hold people accountable for their actions. Company policies should protect workers and emphasize a workplace free of judgment and ridicule. These same policies should outline how misconduct is handled and what to do if someone feels threatened.
2. Reinforce Correct Behavior Through Training
When onboarding a new employee, make sure they understand what behaviors and actions are acceptable and what isn’t tolerated. It’s essential to properly define these early on so new hires know these expectations from the start. Using this method, you can stop most problems before they happen. Training should also explain the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace and provide resources to improve it.
3. Send a Warning
If inappropriate workplace behavior still takes place, the offender should receive a warning. In many instances, the offender may not even realize they did something wrong. Any notice should include what the unacceptable behavior was and why it was inappropriate. Be direct with your warning and let the offender know that they’ll likely receive a punishment or even lose their job if they repeat the offense. In extreme cases, notifications may not go far enough, and immediate termination may result.
4. Notify Superiors
If you are the victim of a hostile workplace, one of the first steps to follow is to notify your boss about inappropriate behavior. Managers and supervisors usually have direct access to the proper channels for addressing wrong actions that contribute to a bad environment. They may not know something is amiss and will take immediate action to tackle the problem. When inappropriate behavior comes from your boss, notify an HR representative and detail the issue to them.
5. Seek Legal Support
There are times when it’s not enough to notify a superior or HR. Perhaps the company leaders don’t believe your claims and have no interest in investigating them. Maybe the hostile work environment stems from the top of the organization. In such cases, seek legal guidance and support. Many attorneys are qualified to deal specifically with hostile workplace situations. You can even contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which can provide you with the resources you need.
What a Hostile Work Environment Is Not
As mentioned above, being uncomfortable at your job doesn’t always mean you work in a hostile environment. Problems and behaviors must be inappropriate, severe, and persistent. A coworker who chews loudly during your lunch break isn’t an indication of a hostile work environment. Nor does a company that fails to provide adequate talent development. Pay close attention to what bothers you about your workplace and note if it falls under the EEOC definition of harassment. If it doesn’t, you can still talk about it with your boss and see what the company can do to improve the situation.
Don’t Settle For a Hostile Work Environment
Your workplace should provide a comfortable environment where you can perform your job without fear of ridicule or retaliation. No one should have to settle for less. It’s also in the company leaders’ best interests to address these problems and prevent the creation of a hostile work environment. Failure to do so can lead to damaged lives and massive settlements. For example, one such settlement in 2018 led American Sugar Holdings, Inc. to pay 13 million in damages due to a hostile work environment (though they ended up paying a lesser amount in the end). Act now to prevent problems, and everyone in the company, from the executives to the employees, will feel grateful.
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