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Horrible workplaces: The signs of a hostile work environment and what to do about it

A horrible workplace, also known as a hostile work environment, is one where employees feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated due to unwelcome conduct. This can include harassment, discrimination, victimization, violence, and other offensive behaviors. It is characterized by fear, apprehension, and official complaints about bullying or discrimination.

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

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

Horrible workplaces: The signs of a hostile work environment and what to do about it

Did you know that one in five people in the United States experiences a hostile work environment according to a study? So, if you’re suspecting that there’s something wrong with your workplace, the odds are good that one or more of your colleagues feel like they work in a hostile environment. If this is the case, you’ll want to act as fast as possible to find the cure, and to prevent it altogether in the future, before employees become irreversibly unproductive or go down the legal road.

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What constitutes a hostile work environment?

Hostile work environment definition

First, let’s define ‘hostile work environment.’ A hostile work environment is a workplace that makes employees feel “uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated” due to unwelcome conduct. There are a number of questions that arise based on this hostile work environment definition, such as:

  • What kind of conduct is ‘unwelcome’?
  • What’s the frequency or severity of unwelcome conduct that creates a hostile environment?
  • How can a company be sure that employees truly feel scared or intimidated instead of just unsatisfied with their workplace?
  • What are the tangible signs of a hostile work environment?

Answers to these questions will help you determine what qualifies as a hostile work environment. Sometimes, you might need to make some improvements to promote a happier and more productive workplace, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you also need to worry about hostility or legal complaints. But, if you determine your company does have a hostile environment, action is imperative.

Hostile work environment: The legal side

Examining hostile work environment laws helps you determine whether there are legal risks in your workplace. For example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that a hostile work environment results from harassment:

Harassment that causes a hostile work environment is “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”

This means that any kind of discriminatory action and harassment on the basis of protected characteristics can bring about a hostile environment which might bring a lawsuit (not to mention the negative impact that would have on the reputation of your company).

But, not every unpleasant work environment is illegal. The EEOC states that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious)” aren’t considered illegal. For example, if someone makes inappropriate but non-discriminatory jokes at a colleague, or if someone overworks and belittles their team, their conduct might not qualify as illegal. This means that employees might face difficulties when filling an EEOC complaint for hostile work environment in these cases.

Still, this distinction matters only if your sole purpose is to avoid lawsuits. While this is a valid concern for employers, eliminating smaller issues and workplace bullying should also be top of mind; after all, a fair and respectful work environment can maximize employee productivity, engagement and retention.

What is unwelcome conduct?

Harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination, victimization, violence and many other kinds of offensive or inappropriate behavior qualify as unwelcome conduct. All of them will create a hostile work environment if they’re happening consistently or purposefully, or in the case of a single incident, if they’re severe.

For example, if someone makes a sexist comment toward a colleague, they need to face repercussions, but, their off-hand comment will probably not foster hostility in the workplace.

On the other hand, if that person is a supervisor or makes similar comments on a regular basis, their conduct can create a hostile environment. The same applies if the action is severe enough – think of the scene in the comedy film Horrible Bosses where Jennifer Aniston drugs her dental assistant.

Horrible Bosses image of Jennifer Aniston
Image from the film Horrible Bosses

Though this may seem too extreme to happen in real life (despite the known horrors that take place on dentists’ chairs), severe actions do occur in workplaces, including sexual assault. And these types of conduct need only happen once to create a hostile environment.

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The signs of a hostile work environment

An unhappy workplace has certain characteristics, e.g. people experiencing burnout symptoms, people arguing often, employees complaining they’re underpaid or underappreciated. And there are many more other signs that clearly point to job dissatisfaction, such as absenteeism, lack of resources, job insecurity brought by layoffs, etc.

On the other hand, in a hostile work environment, you’re more likely to see fear, apprehension, and official complaints to HR about bullying or discrimination.

So, what behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment?

Here are some possible examples of hostile work environment:

  • Sexual / racial harassment. These are two things that always create a hostile environment for employees. You can’t have people making vulgar comments about gender or sexual orientation, spouting racial slurs or ridiculing someone on the basis of sex or race, and claim you have a healthy workplace. If you’ve received relevant complaints or heard this kind of verbal abuse yourself, you’re probably going to see increased hostility in the workplace.
  • Discrimination of any kind. For example, you may hear about or see a hiring manager regularly rejecting applicants who are older than, say, 35 years old. Or those who are female, or foreign-born. This means that they’re biased against these groups of people so it’s possible they don’t behave properly to those already in your company belonging to those groups. Not only can bias foster a hostile workplace, but discrimination against protected characteristics is also illegal in many countries.
  • Consistent aggressiveness. Imagine you frequently overhear the VP of sales yelling at their personal assistant or see them shoving their business development executives. This could be a sign that their teams are experiencing a hostile workplace where they’re victimized or afraid. Even when someone is regularly resorting to passive-aggressive behaviors or pushing others to unhealthy competition, that’s a red flag – even though this behavior is likely not illegal.
  • Ridiculing or victimization. Some people may play jokes or tease each other – that’s normal between work friends. But if you witness a very serious prank that leaves the person embarrassed and frustrated, or if someone has set up a Facebook group to ridicule a colleague, that’s a sign of a hostile workplace. Targeting people for public humiliation is increasingly unacceptable, as seen in the increased focus on cyberbullying.
  • Lots of complaints and threats for punishment. If employees are constantly filing complaints and supervisors talk of disciplining or punishing employees, something is definitely wrong. Even if you don’t see official complaints, keep your ears open when the conversation turns to personal experiences in the workplace.
  • That feeling you get. Your gut can probably tell you if you’re working in a good or a bad workplace. If you or your coworkers often feel miserable, afraid or threatened, that’s a clear sign of a hostile work environment. Keep an eye out for people who sabotage or slander others, who are generally disrespectful or offensive, and who disparage other people’s ideas or personalities. They might be fostering a hostile environment as we speak.

These are all signs you can notice whether you’re looking in from the outside or work closely with the people at fault. If you’re a manager, it’s even easier to recognize unwelcome behavior in your team since you (should) interact with them on a regular basis.

How to fix a hostile workplace

There’s no clear answer; each company deals with an abusive work environment on a case-by-case basis.

A hostile workplace that’s created by a single person has an obvious solution – you fire that person, or at least reprimand them so it doesn’t happen again. But even then, there are concerns: what if that person is the CEO or an executive you have no authority over? What if they’re the best performer and the company absolutely needs them? What if there are other issues you hadn’t foreseen or what if their action wasn’t so severe as to warrant termination?

In this case, you can speak to the person creating the hostile environment directly. If they don’t show willingness to change, go to their supervisor and explain the situation. If you are the person’s supervisor, even better: you have the authority to coax them into really listening and getting better.

If the person fostering hostility is the CEO, that’s a more difficult situation to deal with. You can, however, speak to them and make the case for fixing your workplace by appealing to their best interests as a CEO. Try your hand by giving them data on performance and productivity and talk to them about the nature of complaints. It’d also be useful to talk about turnover rates and associated costs. Present a list of changes that should happen or a course of action.

Of course, sometimes, managers and HR need to be bold enough to terminate employees who pose legal and ethical risks with their behavior – even if they’re the brightest stars in their field of expertise. And other times, CEOs who are at fault might be forced to resign if there’s enough pressure.

And if it’s a culture problem?

The most difficult hostile work environment cases are when the entire company, or a great part of it, contributes to hostility. The notorious bro cultures of some companies are good examples of hostile workplaces to women or LGBTQ people. Even “idle banter” can result in a hostile work environment.

The case of Uber is perhaps one of the most well-known because the company has not only allegedly saw cases of sexual harassment in their offices, but has been also accused of not doing enough to protect Uber passengers. Uber isn’t alone in facing serious allegations; recently, former FBI recruits (including current agents) sued the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for gender and racial discrimination.

It’s not a stretch to imagine these two being included in a list of hostile work environment examples due to reported systemic discrimination and culture. If your company has a hostile work environment because of cultural problems, then you have your work cut out for you. But you can start from somewhere:

  • Draft a company policy, depending on the problem you have. For example, if the main problem is sexual harassment, and it often is, be sure to have a policy that clearly defines the different forms of harassment (as Uber actually did). Also, state the disciplinary actions that will follow if someone engages in harassment. It’d also be useful to have a policy about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in general, since there’s no universal consensus on what those behaviors are (remember to include conduct on social media!).
  • Get buy-in from executives. Some executives (especially senior management) may deliberately participate in or promote the toxic culture, but others may not have noticed that something is wrong, especially if they’re not involved in the day-to-day work. Talk to them openly, and make sure they take the situation seriously (present data on turnover, complaints and information on legal risks). Then, work with them for a plan and encourage them to have honest discussions with their teams.
  • Open up paths of communication and act properly. Some statistics show that almost all cases of sexual harassment at work go unreported, according to a recent article. This is because many employers react to complaints by retaliating against the complainant (usually by firing them, as the article states). That should be a no-no for any serious company, and it’s also illegal under EEOC laws, opening the door for more lawsuits. Assure your employees they can report their complaints, investigate properly and be prepared to take action if you find compelling evidence – towards the perpetrator, not the victim. You should also provide good advice to employees facing a hostile environment, such as their ability to file police reports or civil lawsuits when appropriate.

Through all this, be patient. You should be able to immediately stop unwelcome conduct before it goes to the lengths of harassment or violence, but broader changes in culture don’t happen in a day. You may feel hesitant to rock the boat, divide or antagonize your team or lose good employees. But you are obliged and need to pull through.

Your job, after all, is to ensure a safe, open and inclusive environment for your colleagues – all of them – to work in.

This is your opportunity to step up and make changes that will reflect positively in the eyes of management and even the bottom line. Employees will trust you and your company will be on the right path to a happy and productive workplace that’s better for everyone.

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