What constitutes a hostile work environment? Some employees believe that a bad boss, an unpleasant work environment, a rude coworker, 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.
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. This is especially true if you asked the individual to stop and the behavior continues.
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. A 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 alone, solicit help from a manager or Human Resources.
You want to put the offending employee on notice that their behavior is offensive, discriminatory, inappropriate, and that you won't tolerate the behavior.
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.
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 will flounder if the employer was unaware of the situation and had not been given the opportunity to address the behavior and hostile environment.
Plus, you may be surprised about how vigilantly your employer acts to prevent current and future incidents that may contribute to a hostile work environment. Give your employer a chance.
Related to Hostile Work Environment
- Prevent Employment Discrimination and Lawsuits
- Know That Hostile Environments Are Related to More Than Sexual Harassment
- Prevent Workplace Discrimination
- Recognize That Retaliation Is Illegal
More Glossary Resources
Also Known As: hostile workplace, hostile environment
Susan Heathfield makes every effort to offer accurate, common-sense, ethical Human Resources management, employer, and workplace advice both on this website, and linked to from this website, but she is not an attorney, and the content on the site, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not to be construed as legal advice.
The site has a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country, so the site cannot be definitive on all of them for your workplace. When in doubt, always seek legal counsel or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct. The information on this site is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.