Hostile Work Environments
Updated 26 February 2021
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment is where unpleasant and unwelcome comments or conduct hinder your ability to complete your work.
Hostile work environments become unlawful when the actions are:
- Directed towards legally protected characteristics such as gender, race, sexual orientation and religion
- Effect your status, salary and work
A hostile environment can be created by any member of the workforce, not just senior management. It can be a single person or a workplace culture.
The most common form is sexual harassment. However, it can also be:
- Inappropriate jokes or joking around
- Physical threats
- Verbal threats
- Offensive photographs
- Impeding others work
It also includes using social media to spread malicious behavior.
You spend most of your adult life working. In today's world, where our focus is on wellness and work-life balance, hostile work environments should not exist.
You should feel good about going to work. You should feel supported and valued.
Of course, no one expects you to get along with every team member, but you should not have the stress of dealing with a toxic workplace or person.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) believes everyone has equal rights to happy employment and offers guidelines and an online assessment tool for harassment.
The EEOC also deals directly with any discrimination or harassment claims, assuming the claim has been filed within 180 days of the complaint.
It is important to point out that you are also considered a victim if you have witnessed the incident or incidents.
The attacks do not need to be directed at you for you to report them.
What Are Signs of a Hostile Work Environment?
When you feel comfortable in your workplace, you thrive. When you feel threatened, you become too scared to make a move in case it is the wrong one.
But what does a hostile environment look like?
A hostile environment has no set image. It varies from organization to organization, person to person.
Hostile environments may result in employees:
- Experiencing burnout symptoms, anxiety or fear
- Constantly arguing or disagreeing
- Complaining about working hours and lack of bonuses or pay rises
- Feeling undervalued and underappreciated
- Being too scared to express their opinion or make mistakes
- Having their ideas shot down by more senior employees
- On occasions, even becoming too scared to go into work
If the harassment is company-wide and part of the work culture, a large number of employees will experience some or all of these things.
When the harassment is pinpointed at a group or individual, those directly involved will feel the effects, but surrounding employees may also feel awkwardness or discomfort.
Examples of hostility could look like:
- A colleague making a stereotypical racist comment towards a team member of a different ethnic background
- A male staff member making sexist remarks towards women or a gay male
While a manager who only gives negative feedback, doesn't offer any support and yells their way through the working day may create a hostile workspace, it is not a legal issue.
It is simply a toxic work culture. But it should be addressed all the same.
Hostile Work Environment Statistics
A 2018 study completed by Hiscox found that:
- 50% of harassment cases were based on gender
- 41% of women feel they were harassed at work
- 78% of accused harassers are male, with 73% holding senior positions
- From 2010 to 2017, over $1 billion was paid to settle harassment cases
- 53% do not report harassment for fear of making the environment even more hostile
- 45% have witnessed a co-worker being harassed – it is not stated if any of those reported the incident themselves
What Makes a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?
To reiterate, a hostile work environment is illegal when the comments or conduct are directed towards someone because of their:
- Medical condition or disability
- Height or weight
- Race, ethnicity or color
- Marital status
The harassment needs to be ongoing – one-off incidents are not considered unlawful.
These groups are protected under the:
- Civil Rights Act 1964
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act
- Americans with Disabilities Act
LGTB workers are protected by the EEOC. Depending on the act, the claim will fall under one or more of the above legislation.
A way to determine if it is a legal issue is to ask yourself, 'Would they say or do that to a white person/another male/a younger person/a Christian?'
If the answer is 'yes', then it is a case of office politics and action should be taken to resolve it in-house. If it is 'no', then the case needs to be reported through the appropriate channels.
How Do I Report Unlawful Harassment?
For cases of unlawful work environments, there are five ways you can help resolve the situation:
- Take the issue to your HR advisor. They will recommend filing a complaint with the EEOC or will try to resolve the situation in-house first.
- File a complaint immediately with the EEOC. Undeniable and vulgar acts of discrimination should not be left unchecked. Harassment and bullying can have a catastrophic impact on a person and the situation needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
- Speak to the person directly. Maybe they don't realize the effect it is having on you or the workplace.
- If the situation is beyond repair, you may have to consider requesting a move to another department or office.
- If a move is not possible and all attempts at conflict resolution have failed, you might consider resigning.
At any time you feel it appropriate, involve your lawyer. This may seem like a drastic move, but they know all the procedures and what actions should be taken.
No one should face harassment because of who they are or what they believe.
Workplace diversity is not a new concept. Everyone is different, and everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.
How Do I Report Hostile Work Cultures?
If the hostile environment results from poor management, out-date-policies or classroom bullies, it needs to be addressed in-house.
Speak to your HR advisor first. Perhaps others have already come forward, or it is a situation they are already looking into.
Prepare your statement ahead of time, ensuring you have all the facts and details of the incidents you want to report.
If you are looking to change how the managers work, research current trends and statistics that back your claim. For example, how new managing techniques have improved productivity and by how much percent.
It is not weak or unfounded to want to improve your working conditions.
The EEOC was created because of toxic environments and people abusing their power. It is your legal right to work in a safe and fulfilling working environment.
If your HR advisor does not want to take your case further, you can either approach your union (if you have one) or speak to the person/persons directly.
What Factors Contribute to Hostile Work Environments?
For unlawful discrimination, a lack of education and understanding are key contributing factors.
Most businesses operate on a global scale. It is not unusual to work with people of different sexual orientation, religion or race.
However, when someone with different values and customs enters a certain space, they can become targets for those who do not like change or differences.
In some cases, this is a sign of ignorance; but it is always unacceptable.
Other factors that contribute to hostile work environments include:
- Bad or closed communication between colleagues, departments and managers
- Old management styles such as negative review processes and feedback, or dictator-style leadership
- Company procedures regarding personal leave, emergency leave, maternity/paternity leave and sick leave
- Inequality – Male to female pay gap, pregnancy, young to old, American-born or immigrant, glass-ceiling
- Not updating policies and procedures with current trends
How Can I Improve My Work Environment?
As an employee, you may feel trapped in your work environment, especially if managed by someone who doesn't value your input.
But there are steps you can take to change the workplace culture.
First, address any actions or comments that are hostile or harassing. This could look like speaking with your manager and/or HR, or the person directly.
Stand up for yourself or the victim. If the comments are actions are directed at you, stand up for yourself immediately. Don't let the moment pass.
Take a few seconds to compose yourself, and calmly and professionally tell the person their actions are unacceptable because of X, Y and Z reasons.
Addressing their actions in public may encourage them to see their errors.
Equally, if you witness someone else being mistreated, stand up for them. Once the bully realizes not everyone is with them, they may back down.
Ask for a meeting with your line manager and HR adviser to discuss current office politics. It may be that they have no idea what is happening or its impact on productivity.
Again, do your research and mention hard facts and evidence.
If you see that the environment is bringing your colleagues down or someone is upset, be a beacon of love and support. Offer to make them a drink, or sit with them while they vent their issues or talk to HR.
Sometimes, knowing that there is someone you can turn to makes all the difference.
What Should I Expect From My Employers?
First and foremost, the US Department of Labor mandates that any form of discrimination is treated as misconduct.
That means your employer is legally obliged to take all complaints seriously and have them thoroughly investigated. Failure to do so implicates them and puts them at legal risk.
A healthy work environment would include regular training on discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
There should be open communication, whereby you can freely discuss office politics and cultures.
Since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, 51% of companies in a recent study have implemented anti-harassment policies.
An Example Hostile Work Environment
In 2019, headlines read that Uber is to pay $4.4 million to employees who have experienced harassment in the workplace.
The original claim came in 2017 from ex-employee Susan Fowler.
Fowler wrote a blog post stating that she was propositioned by her manager from the first day of employment. Other employees told her that this was 'the norm' in the office.
When she took the issue to HR, the company took measures to protect management and shrugged her off.
The published article forced the situation out in the open, and a federal investigation followed.
The EEOC report found that Uber had allowed a hostile work environment of sexual harassment and retaliation.
That same year, CEO Travis Kalanick and 20 other employees were removed from the company.
However, it didn't end there.
The origins of Uber's hostile work environment begin with Kalanick, who in an interview referred to Uber as 'boob-er' because of the number of women he attracted.
This toxic-masculinity filtered down the ranks.
Ms. Fowler stated, "It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor's job. No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: They boasted about it in meetings."
It didn't end there. Reports claim that homophobic slurs were often used, and one manager even threatened to beat an employee over the head with a baseball bat.
It was even common practice for senior management to grab women's breasts.
A new CEO was bought in and has started to reform the company. But as the hostility stems from people's personalities, improving the work culture at Uber is a long and complicated process.
The Uber example is a prime example of every type of hostile work environment situation. From unlawful practices to toxic office politics.
Sadly, it is not an isolated incident.
There are many companies all around the world that operate in this way.
As an employee, you have to make a stand if you feel your environment is hostile.
- Gather all the legal advice you can
- Involve the correct parties – HR, line manager
- Know your rights
- Do not be afraid of repercussions or retaliation – retaliation is illegal
- Try to encourage open communication
Organizations do not change by themselves. The change either comes because a situation escalated too far, or someone took the first step to promote change.