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Table of Contents

  1. What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
  2. How Do I Know If I’m in a Hostile Work Environment?
  3. Steps to Take If You’re Experiencing a Hostile Work Environment
  4. How to Promote a Safe Workplace

Hostile work environments can develop in several different industries. In fact, one in five Americans says they have experienced a hostile or threatening workplace environment during their time in the workforce.

But what qualifies as a hostile work environment? How can you tell the difference between an unsupported, unhealthy workplace and a hostile environment?

To understand how to address your specific situation, you must learn how to categorize your experience. Every workplace varies and presents different challenges, but unfortunately, some dysfunctional patterns persist across the country. In this guide, we’ll discuss what qualifies as a hostile work environment, how you can try to stop it and what legal actions you can take if those methods do not work.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is not the same as an uncomfortable, unsupported work environment. While an unsupported environment creates problems of its own, a hostile work environment is specific to those generated by actions based on discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) uses the term for legal purposes to define unwelcome or offensive workplace behavior of a discriminatory nature that causes at least one employee to feel physically, mentally or emotionally intimidated, scared or uncomfortable while in their place of employment.

Although these are the most commonly recognized examples of a hostile work environment, discrimination does not just include race or sex-based harassment. Hostile work environments can develop if someone treats people differently due to:

  • Age
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Physical or mental handicap
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation

The EEOC protects these groups, and a company’s failure to protect these groups can result in legal action. In most cases, the environment develops from repeated instances, but some extreme cases — such as sexual assault — a hostile environment is created after one experience.

No workplace is immune — even the FBI faced a lawsuit after sixteen FBI recruits, seven of which were agents, sued the Bureau on account of a hostile work environment. Hostile work environment cases can happen anywhere and can result in fines, ruined reputations and serious legal consequences.

How Do I Know If I’m in a Hostile Work Environment?

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment. Some types of harassment are more explicit than others.

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Abusers can use gaslighting to make you question your own experiences — this type of manipulation works because it makes you feel paranoid by invalidating your reaction to those experiences.

This tactic makes it difficult to identify a hostile environment. Some scenarios that fall under the umbrella of a hostile or intimidating work environment include:

  • Coworkers making snide remarks about how you only got the job because of your race. When you speak up, they tell you to lighten up because “it’s only a joke.”
  • A co-worker using sexually suggestive or explicit language and slurs.
  • A supervisor continuously failing to make accommodations for your wheelchair, so you can safely enter and exit the conference room.
  • Being passed over for a promotion, even though you have more qualifications and years of experience with the company than the person who got the job. Your boss says he would have loved to give you the position, but since you just got married, he couldn’t risk giving the job to someone who might take maternity leave.
  • A supervisor cornering you, making lewd comments and groping you. He says if you tell anyone, he’ll have you fired. You shouldn’t even bother telling anyone, he says, because “no one will believe you anyway.”

If you are treated differently by one or a group of people because you fall into one of the EEOC protected categories — and experiencing this treatment causes you to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in your work environment — you are probably in a hostile work environment. This behavior can impact your mental health, perception of safety, productivity and ability to focus, among other things.

Steps to Take If You’re Experiencing a Hostile Work Environment

There are two sources of a hostile work environment: the actions of one person working alone, or a culture created by a group of individuals.

When working to correct the actions of an individual, it’s easier to approach the perpetrator, since it’s coming from one source. From an HR standpoint, if the abuser fails to comply with appropriate workplace conduct after being approached, the solution is simple. If fired, HR has removed the root of the issue.

However, when fighting against a corporate culture that privileges one group over another, the ways to address the issue become much more complicated. Sometimes, the problem stems from a group in the office forming a “boy’s club,” privileging and supporting the efforts made only by other men. Sometimes cultures stem from a higher-up who allows such behavior to occur without discipline.

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While all circumstances have their own nuances and considerations, there are steps you can take to combat a hostile work environment from a single abuser, including:

  1. Amassing documentation and cultivating specific examples. While some instances won’t leave a paper trail, inappropriate comments made in emails, inter-office chats and written communication give you tangible evidence to build a case. Even if you never take the instances to a legal level, having the evidence helps support your claim to HR. Listing your in-person interactions will give you specific instances to point to when the abuser denies their behavior. If you only claim that they “make inappropriate comments,” the abuser could easily deny the allegation without specific comments and anecdotes to back yourself up.
  2. Seeing if others experience the same thing. If the abuser makes insensitive racial comments to you, chances are they make inappropriate comments to other immigrants or people of color in the office. If you have a good relationship with them, ask if they have any experiences they would like to share, as well.
  3. Contacting the abuser electronically. You can continue to build your paper trail when you ask — through chat or email — to discuss business with the colleague. You build proof of the interaction, so you can show third parties your attempt to reconcile in the future.
  4. Approaching the abuser with a co-worker as a mediator and witness. Depending on the severity, taking them aside and letting them know their actions make you uncomfortable might be enough to curb their behavior. They may not realize that the inappropriate banter they exchange with friends at the bar becomes even more inappropriate in the workplace. Taking it up with them on an individual level shows you tried to resolve the issue on your own before involving a secondary party.
  5. Going to HR or the supervisor. This step assumes your company has an HR department and the supervisor is not the abuser. In an individual case, it’s easier to police and reprimand the actions of one offender. If they do not heed the instructions of the higher-up, their termination should end the existence of the hostile work environment.
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There are also steps you can take to combat a hostile work environment from a group or workplace culture, such as:

  1. Approaching HR. If there is no single head to the issue, the systematic problems might be too broad in scope to tackle on your own. HR can start forming a plan to address your issue. If the harassment occurs from a group, chances are other people in the office suffer as well. This way, the department can make systematic changes to a systematic problem.
  2. Requesting policies that curb the discriminatory behavior. While the EEOC makes workplace harassment illegal, writing out specific punishments and protocols for what happens when it occurs in this particular office will hopefully bring awareness to the issue and put a stop to it in the future. Announcing protocol that after three accounts of lewd comments, a worker will face termination demonstrates that the company will no longer tolerate this behavior.

If the behavior persists, you may ask yourself the big question — can I sue my employer for creating a hostile work environment?

Yes, you can.

Figuring out how to prove a hostile work environment is key to making a strong case. If you feel as though this hostile work environment endangered your mental, physical or emotional health, and you want to take legal action against your company, you have the legal grounds to do so. If you have the documentation, witnesses and proof of harassment, consult a lawyer for what to do next.

How to Promote a Safe Workplace

If you feel your workplace could benefit from education on the do’s and don’ts of cultivating a safe, inclusive environment, consider having your company take a course on sexual harassment and discrimination training. Prevention through education gives your company the best chance of cultivating a productive and safe workplace for all your employees.

Give us a call at (877) 674-2669 or visit our contact page to learn more about how you can foster a healthy environment, so all your employees and co-workers can thrive and live up to their full potential.

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