What are the three key elements which come to your mind when you hear the term ‘hostile work environment’? Of course, it is pretty subjective, but we think about an intimidating or abusive work environment that spoils the workplace is the general consensus. Sometimes annoying elements like rude coworkers, lack of quality teamwork, lack of good perks and benefits, an unpleasant work culture, or a bad manager can make the workplace unhealthy and unfriendly.

Though all these factors tend to make the workplace seem hostile, they may or may not come under the legal definition of a hostile work environment. Consequently, legally, what constitutes a hostile environment? Let’s dive into that.

Hostile Work Environment Definition

Various federal laws define a hostile work environment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, defines a hostile work environment as a situation where an employee is discriminated against based on race, religion, gender, age, national origin, sexual orientation, or disabilities

A hostile work environment is one that is not conducive to work in. It is abusive and impacts the quality of work of every party involved. It is an environment where the employee feels intimidated or harassed or discriminated against because of the abusive behavior of employers or coworkers.

A hostile work environment is where there are physical or verbal threats, bullying, offensive name-calling, inappropriate jokes, and/or sexual harassment.

Is a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?

Though a hostile work environment is subjective, for certain behaviors to qualify as legal behaviors, they must meet specific criteria. If the assault,  whether physical or verbal, is severe, pervasive, or discriminatory, it is most likely illegal. In addition, discrimination against race, gender, national origin, color, religion, or disabled employees is unlawful.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) deals with harassment or discrimination claims. A claim must be filed within 6 months of the complaint with the employer. 

The EEOC ensures that all employees have the right to work in a positive environment. 

Common Reasons for a Hostile Work Environment in the Organization

The most common reasons for a hostile work environment range from poor communication, unfair rewards systems, to ignoring the employees’ mental health issues.

Lack of Communication

Managers who fail to create transparent communication with their employees create a hostile work environment. It is imperative that everyone in the organization communicates honestly with their peers, managers, and mentors.

Lack of communication leads to miscommunication. This can inadvertently lead to toxic workplaces.

Unfair Rewards System

Differential treatment of employees in an organization leads to flagging morale. Managers must maintain an impartial relationship with their team to ensure faith in the rewards process. If favoritism leads to a biased appraisal processes employees’ motivation to go the extra mile as the reward doesn’t match the work. 

Companies need to be meritocracies in the case of rewards and recognition. Leadership must discourage favoritism in the workplace. Favoritism generally goes against the ethos of diversity and inclusion too.

Employee Mental Health Issues

A principal reason leading to a hostile work environment is employee burnout. Many studies have reported that a sedentary lifestyle and excessive workload harm the employee’s mental health. Employers should consider work-life integration as a key aspect of the company’s culture and take adequate measures to mitigate it.

Hiscox conducted a study in 2018 and made inferences that almost 50% of the cases were gender-based, and ~41% of women reported that they felt harassed at the workplace. $1 billion was paid between 2010 and 2017 to settle harassment claims in the workplace. 

How to Identify a Hostile Work Environment? 

What behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment? Although there are no standard signs since they vary with different companies and managers. 

Some commonly found signs for a hostile work environment are:

  • Employees experiencing anxiety, fear, insomnia, and burnout
  • Constant disagreement between peers
  • Frequent arguments between subordinates and managers
  • Frequent complaints on feeling underappreciated or undervalued in the organization
  • Employees expressing fear to speak up in groups and company events
  • Expressing disappointment in being unable to communicate ideas to senior management
  • Physical manifestations of stress 
  • Excessive absenteeism

How must HR Investigate a Hostile Work Environment Claim? 

It’s essential to hold a transparent and unbiased investigation for a hostile work environment. It is a sensitive situation and must not be made worse due to insensitivity on the part of HR. 

How to prove a hostile work environment? As part of the investigation process, it is crucial to document both sides of the situation without any bias. An employer must make sure that reasonable care is taken to prevent and contain any possible harassment. It is imperative that the complainant feels safe during the investigation.

The HR professional must also ensure that the complaint is concluded at the earliest possible and resolved with adequate action that restricts further abuse at the workplace.

First Round of Questions

The HR professional/manager investigating these reports should approach with an open mind and their investigation must answer the following questions: 

  1. Describe the specific instances of workplace hostility.
  2. What was the impact of hostile behavior on the employee’s professional and personal life?
  3. Is there any evidence that can be used to support the investigation? These can include evidence like notes, photographs, recordings, or documents.
  4. Have there been any records of the same behavior by either party? Mention the frequency of these occurrences too. 
  5. Are the complainants’ peers or coworkers facing a similar issue?
  6. Describe in detail the parties potentially at fault. Was it one person or more than one?
  7. Is this the first time the complainant has raised a similar complaint? Or have they reported an instance before?
  8. Was any action taken? Please explain what the action was. 

Follow Up Questions in the Case of Discrimination

There are many cases of harassment based on discrimination of a particular group. These cases are much more sensitive and must be handled carefully. HR must find the answers to the following questions:

  1. Please explain the situation in detail. 
  2. What was your response to this situation? How did you react?
  3. Were you alone, or is there somebody else who heard these comments?
  4. Were you the only person, or did a similar situation occur to others as well?
  5. Can you refer us to anybody who may have relevant data or visibility regarding this situation?
  6. Were the comments about race, gender, religion, age, etc.?

Looking into these questions would be a starting point to understand behavior patterns and how to tackle them.

Even in cases where the complaint does not meet the definition of a hostile work environment, it would be important to check it against the internal guidelines and company’s policies for possible cases of harassment. In case the employer finds the behavior to be against the corporate policy, the investigation should continue.

How to Report a Hostile Work Environment?

Reach out to HR

The first step to reporting a hostile work environment is to speak to the concerned point of contact from HR. Most companies have an HR advisor looking into matters of employee well-being and might have already encountered similar situations before.

While raising the complaint, prepare a statement covering the incidents in detail and supporting them with the required facts and proof. Be sure to set up a follow-up meeting with HR to take them through your report and give any additional information. 

It is best to seek anonymity to ensure an impartial investigation.

File a Complaint Against the Investigation

If you aren’t satisfied with the resolution provided, escalate it further to senior leadership. While filing that be sure to point out the issues you have with the investigation clearly and candidly. 

Personal Conflict Resolution

An alternate way is also speaking directly to the person causing harm. Reaching out to the concerned person and explaining the negative impact they are having on you helps them realize and correct themselves.

EEOC Complaint

Finally, in case of no resolution in any of the above steps, file a complaint with EEOC. Regulatory bodies look into these issues and resolve them with the highest priority.

Hostile Work Environment Examples

Hostile work environment examples are not difficult to gather or find as these are very common across organizations in many aspects. We have listed down two cases, sexual and non-sexual harassment, for better understanding.

Example 1: Sexual Harassment Case

One of the very popular examples is the “Uber Case,” where the company in 2019 paid almost $4 million to its employees who claimed workplace harassment. The employees claimed that Uber adopted many unlawful policies and practices and had a toxic culture.

The story starts in 2017. Susan Fowler, a former employee, penned an explosive blog about how she was harassed by her manager on her very first day at Uber. This continued through the duration of her employment with Uber. She approached HR but the company tried to protect the manager instead.

This blog forced the authorities to open the issue and what followed next was a federal investigation. The equal employment opportunity commission (EEOC) reported that Uber’s management allowed a hostile work environment of retaliation and sexual harassment. In the same year, 2017, the CEO of the company, Travis Kalanick, and 20 other employees were removed by the board.

However, just this did not change the company’s hostile environment because the toxicity of the workplace was pervasive at all levels. Though it all started at the top, this toxic culture of misogyny, physical assault, and threats was becoming a major problem for this unicorn.

The solution? The company needed to reform and establish its culture from scratch. It needed to understand the roots of where this hostility was coming from and it. Company culture always starts from the top. It was the job of the new CEO to weed out toxicity within Uber. 

We consider no news good news in this case. With no highly publicized cases from Uber so far, we do hope they have been able to turn things around.

Example 2: Non-Sexual Harassment Case

Though sexual harassment is one of the main causes of a toxic workplace. There are many other actions that also come under the umbrella of a hostile work environment. These include racial discrimination, ableism, and even harassment for sexual orientation. 

These situations make it hard for employees to work, and impact their mental and physical health. For instance, let’s take the case of Daniel, who is a BIPOC working in the United States.

Daniel accepted a job offer from a technology company in Seattle. On his first day, he observed that he was the only person of color in that particular office but he didn’t think much about it.

Slowly, his peers started to leave him out of work meetings and fun workplace events. Some of them spoke very slowly to him, mocking his English and acting as though they couldn’t understand a word he was saying. With phrases like “your people can’t understand our language” or “you can’t fit in with us” the workplace progressively got more hostile.

Although he tried to keep it all bottled, the constant harassment got to him and he finally filed a report with HR. Unfortunately, his complaint wasn’t dealt with properly and Daniel was forced to quit.

How Can Workplaces Prevent an Intimidating Work Environment?

Businesses must learn to be proactive in eliminating bad behaviors in employees.

Initiatives like developing an internal complaint portal for employees, hiring and training the right people to investigate and resolve complaints, and approaching the situations in accordance with a code of conduct are necessary to have a healthy workplace and avoid lawsuits.

Organizations do not transform by themselves. Human Resource executives should start focusing on training the employees on hostile work environments, discrimination, harassment, and set up employee-centric policies. Organizations must start conducting events that can strengthen and build relationships among employees.