How to Identify and Handle a Hostile Work Environment

female superior scolding a male coworker in a conference room


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Employees should be able to come into a positive, healthy work environment each day. Unfortunately, many people struggle with hostile work environments. It's important to understand what exactly a hostile work environment is and how to deal with the situation.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a workplace in which unwelcome comments or conduct based on gender, race, nationality, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or other legally protected characteristics unreasonably interfere with an employee’s work performance or create an intimidating or offensive work environment for the employee who is being harassed. This conduct can severely diminish an employee’s productivity and self-esteem both in and out of the workplace.

A hostile work environment is created when anyone in a workplace commits this type of harassment, including a co-worker, a supervisor or manager, a contractor, client, vendor, or visitor.

In addition to the person who is being directly harassed, other employees who are impacted by the harassment (by hearing or viewing it) are also considered victims. They, too, might find the work environment intimidating or hostile, and it might affect their work performance. In this way, bullies and harassers can affect many more people than just the targeted employee. 

Examples of a Hostile Work Environment

Harassment in the workplace can take on many different facades. Harassers may make offensive jokes, call victims names, threaten fellow employees physically or verbally, ridicule others, display offensive photographs, or impede on another person’s work throughout the day.

Harassment in the workplace might be based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, gender, nationality, age, physical or mental disability, or genetic information. While people are often most familiar with the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace, there are many other types of workplace harassment.

Hostile Work Environments and the Law

Laws related to a hostile work environment are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Harassment becomes unlawful when either the conduct becomes a requirement to continued employment (or if it affects an employee’s salary or status), or the conduct is considered hostile, abusive, or intimidating.

Any individual who believes that their employment rights have been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Charges are filed in three ways: by mail, in person, and by telephone. You normally have to file your complaint within 180 days of the incident. There are opportunities for extension to 300 days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis, but it’s good to file as soon as possible.

It is important to inform yourself about the definition of unlawful harassment in the workplace before filing your claim with the EEOC. The organization’s website has an online assessment tool that can help to determine if they will be able to help the situation at hand. 

If the EEOC is unable to solve your problem within six months, or if you feel as if your case is not being handled properly, you can contact a lawyer to discuss other possibilities.

Employers are usually held liable for harassment caused by a supervisor or co-worker unless they can prove that they tried to prevent it or that the victim refused the help provided to them.

Other Steps to Take

If you do not want to file a claim or contact a lawyer, but you find the work environment unbearable, you might consider other options. One is to solve the issue you are having with the person or persons making the work environment hostile. You might speak to your company’s human resources office for advice on setting up a meeting or mediated conversation between you and the other party.

If staying at your workplace is unbearable, you might also consider resigning from your job. However, even if you are extremely unhappy at work, it is important to resign gracefully and professionally. You never know when you will need a recommendation or a letter of reference from your boss, and a graceful exit will help you get a positive review.

Hostility and the Job Interview

Occasionally, a job interview can be a hostile environment. For example, an employer might ask you inappropriate or illegal interview questions. Before an interview, know what questions employers are and are not allowed to ask you.

The information contained in this article is not tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. For current tax or legal advice, please consult with an accountant or an attorney.