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What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is one where serious instances of harassment and discrimination occur based on protected characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex, age, and disability. This unwelcome conduct becomes potentially illegal when it’s pervasive enough to create a significantly negative work atmosphere.

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

The hostile work environment definition refers to two elements: the legality and the well-being of the workplace. To make sure you have a happy and productive workplace, you need to define a hostile work environment by looking at both angles.


The legal definition of a hostile work environment

According to the law in the United States:

A ‘hostile work environment’ is a workplace where there are serious instances of harassment and discrimination against protected characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex and pregnancy, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

More specifically, this type of unwelcome conduct is potentially illegal when it’s severe or pervasive enough to result in creating a hostile work environment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) indicates that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious)” aren’t considered illegal. This means that an employee might be able to file a successful lawsuit if they face unwelcome, discriminatory conduct (e.g. racial slurs) on a regular basis, but they might not be able to win a legal battle about a single off-hand insult.

Note that neither Workable nor the author provide legal advice. Always consult an attorney for legal matters.

The well-being of a workplace goes beyond laws

Based on the hostile work environment definition above, not every unpleasant workplace can result in legal trouble. If your colleagues steal another colleague’s lunch, gossip about that colleague’s personal life, play a cruel prank on a colleague or make a single sexist joke, you have some hostile work environment examples that are probably not illegal. But, consider that:

  • Any kind of unwelcome conduct, whether illegal or not, makes people feel unsafe and unhappy. Apart from the ethical concerns, tolerating unwelcome conduct can reduce employee productivity, engagement and retention, and also affect the company’s employer brand.
  • Victimization and harassment against people in the workplace, even if they’re not on the basis of protected characteristics, lay the foundation of unlawful behavior. For example, if someone gets away with making disrespectful or inappropriate comments against their colleagues, they might decide to attempt more severe conduct, too.

So, in that sense, we can broaden the meaning of hostile work environment to go beyond legality:

A hostile work environment is any workplace where at least one reasonable employee feels disrespected, humiliated or ignored, and these feelings can be detrimental for work relationships and business results.

If you suspect that someone bullies, offends or victimizes others, or if you’ve been the recipient of this conduct, step up and take measures against this behavior, whether it’s reporting to HR, talking directly with the offender or taking other appropriate actions. This will not only be important for the well-being of your workplace, but it’s also simply the right thing to do.

Learn more about the hostile work environment definition and find out ways to recognize and deal with a hostile work environment in our guide.

Want more definitions? See our complete library of HR Terms.

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