What Makes a Work Environment Hostile?

Legal Guidelines Exist That You Need to Know to Define a Hostile Workplace

Man yelling at cringing woman in the office
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What constitutes a hostile work environment? Some employees believe that a bad boss, an unpleasant work environment, a rude coworker, failure to qualify for a promotion, or the lack of perks, privileges, benefits, and recognition can create a hostile work environment. But, the reality is that for a workplace to be hostile, certain legal criteria must be met.

A hostile work environment is created by a boss or coworker whose actions, communication or behavior make doing your job impossible.

This means that the behavior altered the terms, conditions, and/or reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment for employees.

Additionally, the behavior, actions or communication must be discriminatory in nature. Discrimination is monitored and guided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So, a coworker who talks loudly, snaps her gum, and leans over your desk when she talks with you, is demonstrating inappropriate, rude, obnoxious behavior, but it does not create a hostile work environment. On the other hand, a coworker who tells sexually explicit jokes and sends around images of nude people is guilty of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

A boss who verbally berates you about your age, your religion, your gender, or your race may be guilty of creating a hostile work environment. Even if the comments are casual, said with a smile, or played as jokes, the boss may be creating a hostile work environment.

This is especially true if you asked the individual to stop and the behavior continues. This, by the way, is always the first step in addressing inappropriate behavior at work—ask the inappropriately behaving boss or coworker to stop.

Legal Requirements for a Hostile Environment

The legal requirements for a hostile work environment include these.

  • The actions or behavior must discriminate against a protected classification such as age, religion, disability, or race.
  • The behavior or communication must be pervasive, lasting over time, and not limited to an off-color remark or two that a coworker found annoying. These incidents should be reported to Human Resources for needed intervention.
  • The problem becomes significant and pervasive if it is all around a worker, continues over time, and is not investigated and addressed effectively enough by the organization to make the behavior stop.
  • The hostile behavior, actions, or communication must be severe. Not only is it pervasive over time, but the hostility must seriously disrupt the employee’s work. The second form of severity occurs if the hostile work environment interferes with an employee’s career progress. For example, the employee failed to receive a promotion or a job rotation as a result of the hostile behavior.
  • It is reasonable to assume that the employer knew about the actions or behavior and did not sufficiently intervene. Consequently, the employer can be liable for the creation of a hostile work environment.

Dealing With a Hostile Work Environment

The first step an employee needs to take if he or she is experiencing a hostile work environment is to ask the offending employee to stop their behavior or communication.

If an employee finds this difficult to do on his or her own, they should solicit help from a manager or Human Resources.

When inappropriate behavior is coming from another employee, they are your best in-house resources. They also serve as your witness to the fact that you asked the offending employee to stop the behavior.

You want to put the offending employee on notice that their behavior is offensive, discriminatory, inappropriate, and that you won't tolerate the behavior. (In the majority of cases, the employee will stop the behavior. They may not have realized the degree to which you found the actions offensive.)

These resources will help you address a hostile work environment before the hostility escalates. You can pick between dealing with difficult people, dealing with a bully, holding difficult conversations, and dealing with conflict.

They will all help you increase your skill in dealing with the coworker creating your hostile work environment. These skills and ideas may be all that you need since many bullies are spineless when confronted.

Especially in instances where you have reported the behavior of a manager or supervisor to the appropriate manager or HR staff member, the behavior must stop. Additionally, the reported individual may not retaliate against you as a payback for your reporting of his or her improper behavior.

An employee who experiences a hostile work environment, and has attempted to make the behavior stop without success, though, should go to his or her manager, employer, or Human Resources staff. The first step in getting help is to ask for help. Your employer must have the opportunity to investigate the complaint and eliminate the behavior.

A later hostile workplace lawsuit you institute will flounder if the employer was unaware of the situation and had not been given the opportunity to address the behavior and hostile environment. This is in your hands because, in most workplaces, hostile, offensive behavior is noticed and addressed when it is obvious or seen by many employees.

Employees rarely need to address the behavior on their own. When the behavior is not widely viewed or if it happens only in secret without witnesses, you must bring the hostile behavior to your employer's attention.

Plus, you may find yourself surprised about how vigilantly your employer acts to prevent current and future incidents that may contribute to a hostile work environment. Many, many employers regard harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment as actions that are deserving of employment termination following a confirming investigation. Give your employer a chance to do what's right.

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Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.

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