What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

It’s more common than you might think.

Written by Jeff Rumage
Published on Feb. 27, 2024
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
Image: Shutterstock

A hostile work environment is a workplace where discrimination, harassment or bullying make it difficult for an employee to do their job.

This type of environment is shockingly common. Nearly 20 percent of workers say they work in a hostile or threatening environment, according to a 2017 study of more than 3,000 U.S. workers. Hostile work environments can lead to lawsuits, tarnish a company’s image and hurt employee morale.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is one in which any employee is targeted with unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic like race, sex or disability. The offensive conduct must be severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile or abusive.

To create a positive work culture, leaders can address hostile behaviors, provide anti-harassment training and foster an inclusive culture rooted in respect and open communication.
 

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a legal term describing a workplace that is intimidating, hostile or abusive. This is not the same thing as a workplace that includes, for example, petty slights or annoyances. So while a workplace may be toxic or dysfunctional, it isn’t necessarily hostile — unless it meets certain criteria (explained in more detail in the next section).

A hostile work environment may lead to a lawsuit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has cracked down on hostile workplaces, filing 143 discrimination lawsuits in fiscal year 2023, 43 of which targeted hostile work environments.

Even if a company doesn’t get sued, a hostile work environment will still “eviscerate any sense of psychological safety,” Richard Birke, lead facilitator and trainer at dispute resolution firm JAMS Pathways, told Built In. When workers lack this sense of trust and support, they won’t feel comfortable sharing ideas that could help the business, and they will be less likely to collaborate and come up with innovative ideas. The organization may find it difficult to recruit and retain top talent.

Related ReadingUnderstanding Microaggressions at Work

 

What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to qualify as a hostile work environment, the following conditions must be met:

  1. Unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic such as race, color, religion or creed, national origin or ancestry, age, disability, veteran status and sex (which includes pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation). 

  2. Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment.

  3. The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive. The “severe or pervasive” language means it could be one severe incident or a less severe offense that happens over a period of time.

Despite how common bad workplaces are, it is difficult to prove that one is specifically hostile (in the legal sense). Cramer Law Group founder Amy Cramer, who represented five female paramedics in a $1.8 million sexual harassment lawsuit against the Chicago Fire Department, said it is “egregiously hard” to meet the legal requirements of a hostile workplace claim.

But even if an incident doesn’t rise to the level of hostile, it’s important for managers and HR teams to intervene and address these situations for the sake of their employees’ well-being. 
 

Signs of a Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment can manifest in a variety of ways. This list below includes a few incidents that meet the legal criteria as a hostile work environment, although it is by no means exhaustive.

  • Using racial slurs or epithets
  • Asking a coworker about their sex life
  • Mocking the accent of a coworker from a different country
  • Unwanted touching
  • Showing pornography to a coworker
  • Harassing a coworker on social media

Managers and HR teams might not always be made aware of these behaviors, but there are usually signs, like turnover, absenteeism and low morale, that can hint at a hostile environment that may be lurking beneath the surface and impacting the well-being of your workforce.

Cramer, who has worked on multiple hostile workplace lawsuits, said hostile work environments can have an emotional toll on victims.

“I think people underestimate how impactful it can be in other facets of their lives,” Cramer said. “It’s difficult to…be your cheery old self when all these bad things are happening.”

Related ReadingEmotional Intelligence in the Workplace: What It Is, Why It’s Important

 

How to Create a Positive Work Environment

Provide Training for Employees and Managers

Employee training programs can teach workers what harassment and discrimination looks like and how they can speak up against it. This training should not only be provided during the onboarding process, but also on a recurring basis throughout their tenure.

Managers also need specialized training. Many high-performing individual contributors are promoted into management positions without the management skills, so they should be trained how to create an inclusive environment, resolve conflicts and foster healthy communication.

 

Put Policies and Procedures in Place

Companies should outline what types of behavior are acceptable and unacceptable in their code of ethics or code of conduct policy. These policies should also provide a means for employees to anonymously report discrimination or harassment to the company without fear of retaliation.

Companies typically talk about the values of inclusion, respect and kindness in their code of conduct, but leaders can also go a step further by reinforcing those values through employee recognition programs, performance reviews and other channels.

 

Address Hostile Behaviors

Allegations of bullying, discrimination and harassment should be investigated thoroughly. If the reports of offensive conduct are confirmed, the company should take immediate action to discipline the employee. If the behavior does not rise to the level of hostile, the company should still take prompt action to address the behavior and protect the accuser from further harm.

“Employees need to feel safe and supported as part of an environment that fosters respect and accountability,” Shelby Veltkamp, human resources manager at Case IQ, told Built In. “So if there are issues that come up that aren’t adequately addressed…things can escalate and ultimately contribute to a hostile work environment.”

 

Promote Open Communication

When there are breakdowns in communication, people are also less likely to share that they feel uncomfortable with someone’s behavior. That’s why it’s important for companies to set up hotlines to report unethical or inappropriate behavior, and to make sure employees are supported when they speak up. 

Promoting clear and open communication is a key piece of building trust in a workplace. Companies should be routinely soliciting feedback from their workforce, which can help leaders gauge employee sentiment but also address bigger issues when they pop up.

“When something does go wrong, they’re more likely to come forward and speak up if that’s something you’re constantly eliciting from them,” Veltkamp said.
 

Frequently Asked Questions

For a work environment to be hostile, the offensive conduct must be based on a protected characteristic, like race, sex or disability, and it must be severe or pervasive enough to be considered intimidating, hostile or abusive by a reasonable person.

Employees who are being harassed should notify their HR department so it can address the situation. You should be aware, however, that HR departments aim to protect the company from lawsuits. If you are planning to go to HR, you should consult an attorney to represent your own interests instead of the company’s interests.

 

A hostile work environment could include sexual harassment, racial slurs, insults, threats, intimidation or assault.

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