Hostile Work Environment – What Your Organization Needs To Do

You have only to pick up a newspaper or browse through social media feeds to see headlines talking about harassment in the workplace. Hostile work environment and harassment seem to be pervasive these days and it’s attracting the attention of everyone from politicians to pediatricians, from CEOs to cashiers, and everyone in between. Bullying in the schoolyard has slowly but surely made its way into the boardrooms and manufacturing floors of companies around the country. Corporate leaders and their HR advisors are, understandably, concerned about maintaining a workplace free from harassment, both to avoid costly litigation and to sustain a culture conducive to attracting and retaining the best employees.

But harassment, despite the best efforts of companies over many decades, remains a problem. From minor instances of harassment—your boss repeatedly asking for the same report you said you’d have done by the end of the week—to harassment that crosses the line into illegal behavior.

What Is the Definition of a Hostile Work Environment?

Harassment, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is considered unlawful when: 

  1. Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 
  2. The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive

What is a hostile work environment? It’s one in which an employee feels uncomfortable or threatened to the degree that doing their job becomes unbearable. It involves severe behavior or action that occurs over time and seriously impacts an employee’s ability to do his or her job. 

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The #MeToo movement has proven, just because harassment in the workplace may not be visible, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Learn about the challenges of creating a workplace free of harassment and strategies for building a supportive workplace culture.

Hostile Work Environment Cases & Examples

Hostile work environments can be created through verbal or written communication, through physical actions, or through visual signs. Here are 3 hostile work environment and harassment cases that demonstrate a negative environment. 

1. Verbal or written

Hostile environments can be created verbal when an employee is subject to derogatory comments, offensive jokes, off-color language—either via comments that are made or written messages—sexual or offensive jokes being sent via email, for instance. Overly aggressive bosses or managers who continually or frequently verbally berate employees may cross the line from being merely “difficult” to creating a hostile work environment.

2. Physical

Standing too close to others. Touching others inappropriately or suggestively. Pushing, shoving, or making threats of violence. In some cases, physical signs may be subtle—a hand gesture, for instance. Yet, these behaviors may be egregious enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

3. Visual

A nearby employee who frequently views pornographic content on a computer that can be seen by others. An employee who wears t-shirts or hats with offensive sayings or slogans. Posting images in workstations or offices that are offensive. The definition of “offensive” can certainly vary from one person to another; however, if the situation creates an environment that limits or keeps an employee from performing their work, it is considered to be hostile.

It’s important to keep in mind that these behaviors don’t necessarily have to be directed at a specific employee. An employee only needs to be in the vicinity of these types of comments or actions and feel intimidated by them to be in a hostile work environment.

Taking a Proactive Approach To Hostile Workplace Harassment

Employees and their HR advisors can take a proactive approach to avoid hostile work environments and harassment by having clear, communicated policies in place that include specific examples of what hostile workplace harassment behaviors might entail. Offering training to help employees understand their role in eliminating—and reporting on—these types of behaviors while providing them with the information, tools, and resources to be effective bystanders can also be a best practice in creating a supportive, non-hostile, workplace environment. 

Workplace Harassment Course

EVERFI designs global ethics and compliance courses that educate employees on important skills relating to harassment, diversity, security and culture—protecting your people and your bottom line.