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How To Deal with Hostile Work Environment?

A working environment where employees are not secured, and uncomfortable, scared or intimidated due to bad behavior or conduct of other employees, or their employers

It is not unusual to have a misunderstanding with your workmates. All of us have different personalities and came from different backgrounds. Differences, therefore, are expected. Sometimes, it is even healthy to have minimal conflict every once in a while. If there is tension, there is always the need for conversation, which is a good thing.

Sometimes though, behavior can go out of hand. It can poison the atmosphere in the workplace. Situations can be that toxic that productivity and efficiency may suffer. This is not a good thing. It may affect the performance of every one, which, overall, may have negative and detrimental effects on the company. It is worse if rights are violated.

Everyone needs to work in an environment that follows the rule of law, proper behavior, and ethical conduct. The working environment needs to promote confidence and boosts the morale of its employees. An environment that promotes these things can be described as a healthy working environment.

What is Hostile Work Environment
Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

The exact opposite of a healthy working environment is a hostile working environment. What then, is a hostile working environment?

Defining a hostile working environment

A hostile working environment is a working environment where employees are not secured, and uncomfortable, scared or intimidated due to bad behaviour or conduct of other employees, or their employers. Bad conduct harms the morale and confidence of employees and may affect their performance and productivity.

Employers and employees behaving badly may be due to several factors. An abusive personality is one reason. Another reason is the prevailing discriminatory practices against gender, race, or age at the workplace. These practices may result in abusive behavior or abuse of power and privilege. Other employees may experience discrimination and harassment in workplace as a result.

What behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment?

Some behaviors are obvious and illegal, that to consider them as criteria for having a hostile work environment is a no-brainer. Most of them, however, are not easily recognized and involves a lot of gray areas. Here are some behaviors that, if exhibited by employers, or employees, can be considered as criteria for a hostile work environment.

Discriminatory behavior

The most obvious of all behavior is discrimination due to gender, race, age, religion, sexual, orientation, disability, country of origin, or ethnicity. Discrimination is outright illegal in most countries and is considered a form of hostile behavior.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is the agency tasked to investigate accusations of discrimination in the workplace.

Discrimination, even when benign or even innocent, promotes attitudes of hostility towards the discriminated. It can have severe consequences and can lead to abusive behavior as well as to the pervasiveness of discrimination itself. That is why discrimination must be discouraged in all its form and if possible, punished accordingly.

Abusive behavior

In the context of the workplace, it can be defined as acting outside or beyond what is considered to be acceptable behavior. An abusive person has overstepped the limits of what he/she must be doing. To do something which is not within one’s power, or acting unreasonably towards others, and doing it pervasively.

Examples of this are illegal acts, like sexual harassment. It will also include verbal abuse, insults, and innuendoes.  Another example would be unreasonable behavior. Another still is the abuse of power or privilege. Abusing the goodwill of others, violating acceptable norms, and proper decorum in workplace can also be considered as a form of abusive behavior.

Aside from violating the rights of others, abusive behavior poisons the atmosphere in the workplace and of the working environment. To have persons, employees, or bosses exhibiting abusive behavior is a sure sign of a hostile working environment.

Pervasive and severe behavior

Some behavior can be considered hostile even though it is neither illegal nor abusive. If this type of behavior becomes pervasive, it can disrupt harmony in the workplace. It can affect the relationship of employees among each other, or the employer-employee relationship itself. It can affect the morale of the employees as well as the productivity and efficiency of the company.

Some of this behavior would seem harmless at first, but can be considered hostile and contributes to a hostile work environment if it becomes consistent and pervasive. Among these are all sorts of annoying behavior like pervasive teasing, constant gossiping, sowing intrigues, constant bullying, and the like.

Other forms of behavior such as laziness, tardiness, and always being absent for no reason at all, though not hostile in itself, could create the atmosphere for a hostile work environment.  Especially so if the cases mentioned are severe and pervasive. It can create resentment among employees, causing intrigues, and eventually, low morale for the employees and the company itself.

Unaccountable behavior

The employer must make sure that he sets the example. Employers must make employees accountable for their hostile behavior. Employers must be accountable themselves. Failure to do so will lead to incidences of hostile behavior which will eventually lead to having a hostile work environment.

For instance, if the employer has failed to investigate and address the issue at hand, let say sexual harassment, it may lead to resentment by other employees. It either may lead to bad relationships among employees, or it could lead to an ever-increasing incidence of harassment and other violations.

Things that must be addressed by the employer must be addressed. This is to ensure compliance with laws, rules, norms, and ethical standards in the workplace. The employer must be the paragon of virtue and proper conduct. If employers cannot be accountable for mistakes and violations, they do not have the moral authority to hold others accountable. A hostile work environment may result.

Having a low morale

You surely have a hostile work environment if the employees who are victim of hostile behaviors have low morale. The victim’s desire, or ability to work, has been affected. They will perform poorly in their task, and will no longer be engaged in participating in the discussions or brainstorming.  Employees are no longer engaged in their work if their morale is low.

Indifferent behavior

What contributes to incidences of behavior that leads to a hostile work environment, is the indifference of employers. Employers need to care for the welfare of their employees. As such, they must listen to the complaints of their employees with regards to certain behaviors, hostile or not, that affect the performance and productivity of the company.

For instance, the employer knew about the hostile behavior but did not adequately intervene, it can lead to demoralization of that employee. The employee and others can be indifferent to the plight of others. Worse, they might also exhibit hostile behavior themselves among each other. This is a sure recipe for a hostile work environment, something which every employer will want to avoid.

How to handle or deal with a hostile work environment?

Applying the rule of law is one way to deal immediately with a hostile work environment. Discriminatory acts, as well as abusive behavior punishable by law, must be dealt with accordingly and severely. The victims must report to their employers and the proper authorities incidences of such kind.

Doing so will prevent incidences, discriminatory, abusive, most kinds of hostile behavior. It will make everyone compliant with the rules as prescribed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whether employers or employees. Punishing errant employers and employees due to hostile behavior will promote a healthy working environment for everyone.

You must also be proactive, and call out employers and fellow employees exhibiting hostile and unacceptable behavior. It is a way of preventing hostile behavior that may lead to a hostile work environment. Some people may not realize that they are already overstepping the bounds of what is acceptable. Being honest is a good way to promote a nice working relationship with other people.

What is NOT a hostile work environment?    

A work that does not make you happy, nor gives you satisfaction. An unpleasant boss, hard to get along with employees. The work does not compensate you well, you are underpaid, and sometimes, overworked. This is a common reality. Millions of workers suffer from this, and law and society try to address the issue of alienation and lack of compensation of workers.

These, however, are not the marks of a hostile work environment. A lot of factors contribute to unpleasantness in work, but this feeling must not be equated with having or working in a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment will simply include those working environment that exhibits all the negative attributes and behavior mentioned above.

Negativity and hostility in a work environment

To conclude, one must distinguish between negativity and hostility in the work place. Discriminatory behavior and practices, abusive behavior, pervasive, severe behavior that contributes to low morale, and the indifference of employers to complaints, are forms of hostile behavior. This must be addressed by law, by authorities, and by employers.

Hostile behavior must be distinguished from feelings of negativity that arise from alienation, lack of compensation, general sadness, and/or lack of fulfillment. One may not be in a hostile work environment, but can nevertheless have feelings of negativity. We must recognize, however, that it is also an issue that must be addressed.

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile working environment is a working environment where employees are not secured, and uncomfortable, scared or intimidated due to bad behaviour or conduct of other employees, or their employers. Bad conduct harms the morale and confidence of employees and may affect their performance and productivity. More on Diversity for Social Impact

Hostile Work Environment

Sue Rice

Hostile Work Environment Guide
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About the author

Susanne Ricee

Susanne Ricee is the Diversity and Inclusion Specialist and Researcher at Diversity for Social Impact. Sue brings over 15 years of HR and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion consultation experience.
Sue's previous experience includes Microsoft, Target, and Kraft. Sue is also the manager of Diversity Leadership Directory