What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Katie McBeth
What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Table of Contents

Legal Definition, Examples, and What to Do About It

Do you find yourself scared to come into work? Are you waking up and thinking: “Well, I really hope ‘so and so’ isn’t in the office today.” If you’re struggling to be comfortable at your job, you could be dealing with a hostile work environment.

Being in a hostile work environment is beyond stressful; it’s is extremely detrimental to your health and your ability to work. Although not every job will be an exciting place to work, your job should never make you fearful of retribution or harm. Additionally, you should never experience bullying, harassment, or targeted attacks at your place of work. However, the laws that protect you from harassment can be a bit tricky.

How can you legally define a hostile work environment? What legal protections do you have, and how can you pursue them? Additionally, if you are not legally protected, what can you do for yourself to stay protected from bullying and harassment? What steps should you take to improve your office and notify your managers?

Let’s dive into the specifics behind what constitutes a hostile work environment, and what you can do for yourself depending on your situation.

The Legal Definition of a Hostile Work Environment

Although there are many situations in which a work environment might feel hostile — such as a bad boss, a rude coworker, or a lack of benefits or employee perks — there are specific requirements that actually constitute a legal case for a hostile work environment. It is true that many of these situations in which you feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or maybe downtrodden, can have a major effect on your ability to perform work, and can majorly affect your life even outside of work. However, legal action cannot be pursued unless it meets the qualifications set by the government.

The legal definition for a hostile work environment is a bit specific in its current state. Dictated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), for a work environment to be legally classified as “hostile” it must include some sort of targeted discrimination or harassment of a protected demographic. This includes harassment based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability. Harassment can come from anyone that works within or outside of the company: from a client, to a supervisor, coworker, or even an agent that works with the employer. The victim of a hostile work environment doesn’t always have to be the person that was targeted, as well. It can be anyone that is affected by offensive conduct.

Additionally, as stated by the EEOC:

“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. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.”

More importantly, if the behavior continues even after the abuser has been asked to stop, then it is especially true that the environment has become hostile. A single offhand comment can eventually lead to a hostile environment, but by itself (without further incident) it may not fall under the legal classification for continued harassment and hostility.

Additionally, all cases of harassment should be brought to the attention of your company’s HR department. If the department fails to address the harassment in a timely and accurate manner, then they too could be liable for creating the hostile work environment.

Examples of a Hostile Work Environment

Legally, a hostile work environment is only applicable to those who experience a direct form of targeted harassment. However, there are some other forms of hostility that you may experience that should be brought to the attention of your company’s HR department. Your HR group may have their own set of employee guidelines that could prohibit behavior such as bullying. No matter what, any situation in which another person makes you feel uncomfortable in the office is unacceptable and should be brought to the attention of your HR team.

Here are some examples of behavior that could constitute a hostile work environment:

  • Discrimination: As stated by the EEOC, any form of continued targeted discrimination against a protected class that prevents a person from receiving a promotion at work or completing their daily duties will legally classify as a hostile work environment. Forms of discrimination could range from:
    • Ageism (discrimination based on age, whether older or younger)
    • Racism (discrimination based on race or national origin)
    • Sexism (discrimination based on gender)
    • Pregnancy or Maternity discrimination (such as making rude comments about pregnant or expecting mothers, or not allowing them to do their job as normal)
    • Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (although this can vary from state to state, most states have laws prohibiting the targeted discrimination of LGBTQIA persons)
  • Sexual Harassment: Targeted sexual harassment can also lead to a hostile work environment, and is also protected by the EEOC. Sexual harassment can vary from unwelcome comments, to invasion of personal space, to actual violent actions taken against another human.
  • Bullying: Although bullying is not directly protected by the EEOC, there is a chance that your company will have some protections in place against bullying in their employee manual. Bullying can range from off color jokes made at your expense, to direct verbal or physical attacks. Although you can’t be expected to get along with everyone you work with, anything that directly affects your ability to perform your job should be brought to the attention of your manager or HR department.

Another important and common theme with targeted harassment is the duration of time that involves these incidents. Most court cases that involve a hostile work environment provide documentation of weeks, months, or sometimes even years of targeted abuse or hostility. No matter what the catalyst was for creating the hostile work environment that you’re in — whether it is legally defined as hostile, harassment, or simply obnoxious — there are steps you can take to improve your situation.

How to Deal With a Hostile Work Environment

Dealing with harassment can be daunting and difficult. For many victims, they may feel more comfortable not talking about it at all, or simply leaving the job to work somewhere else. However, it is important to bring attention to the problem behavior if you feel safe enough doing so. Bringing attention to hostile behavior can help prevent future incidents with other victims, or could help identify a pattern of abuse that could be hurting the company as a whole.

In the end, there’s a few steps you can take to help prevent, reverse, or correct hostile behavior that you (or someone else) may be experiencing:

  • Inform your HR Department: This should always be the first step, and for multiple reasons. For one, if the harasser has made multiple abusive comments or advances, your HR department will want to file a charge of discrimination claim with the EEOC. Generally, they have about 180 days following an incident to file a claim, so the sooner they file and investigate, the better. Additionally, your HR department will want to be made aware of the issue in case others have come forward with similar complaints. They can use this to build a case or identify a pattern of abuse. However, if the behavior in question does not fall under the EEOC’s definition of a hostile work environment, you will still want to speak with your HR representative. They may have guidelines in place that prohibit the behavior (such as bullying), or can work as a mediator to help you and the abuser come to a mutual understanding. In the end, your HR department will want to be made aware of the issue so they can investigate the complaint and eliminate harmful behavior.
  • Ask them to stop: Although confrontation can be difficult, it could be worthwhile to address the harasser directly if you feel safe doing so. It could be that they are not aware of the impact of their words, or how their bad joke came across. If you do address them, make sure you also consult with your manager or HR department so that they are also aware of the issue. HR might also be able to give some advice on how to handle the situation. Plus, if the discussion doesn’t work out as planned, your HR department will already be aware of the situations and how you handled it, and they will be able to act as a witness in case the issue escalates.
  • Seek legal counsel: This should only be pursued in extreme cases — such as when the company you work for fails to properly investigate the issue, or if you have experienced continued harassment for an extended time despite discussing it with your manager or HR department. The EEOC handles the majority of harassment complaints, and will evaluate the evidence provided to determine if you may be entitled to a settlement. If you have any additional questions or concerns regarding a harassment claim, discuss it with a qualified attorney.
  • Leave your job: If you find that all of the alternative avenues have not worked for your scenario, then it could be worthwhile to simply leave the job you’re at and find a healthier workplace. No matter what the situation may have been, it is still important to quit in a professional manner to avoid any further issues. Additionally, leaving your place of work in a graceful manner can help secure you a professional reference in case you need it for your next job. Leaving the hostile work environment might be difficult, but you will feel better emotionally and mentally once you’re away from harmful people.

Moving Forward Towards Recovery

Being in a hostile work environment and experiencing harassment can be extremely traumatizing. Simply getting up the courage to report or address abuse can be difficult, but you should always keep in mind that none of it is your fault, no matter what the abuser may tell you otherwise. Abuse of any sort should not be tolerated in a workplace, and you should never have to dread going into work.

If you are experiencing a hostile work environment, know that there are people who can help support you through this difficult time, both within your company and outside of it. No matter what course of action you take, your safety, health, and happiness should always be a priority. Don’t let a hostile work environment get in the way of your success.

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