How to Identify and Handle a Hostile Work Environment

female superior scolding a male coworker in a conference room


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Harassment at work is disturbingly common. A RAND study found that 1 in 5 workers reported suffering from abuse or harassment at work, including bullying, verbal abuse, or unwanted sexual attention. When the abuse is severe and persistent, it can lead to a hostile work environment, which can make it difficult or even impossible for employees to do their job.

Are you currently coping with abusive behavior from your boss, co-workers, or clients? To protect yourself and your career, you need to determine whether your situation meets the legal standard for a hostile work environment. Then, you can figure out how to handle the situation and what to do next.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a workplace in which abuse or harassment interfere with an employee’s work performance or force them to do their job in an intimidating or offensive environment.

Harassment in the workplace might be based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, gender, nationality, age, physical or mental disability, or genetic information. While you may be most familiar with the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace, there are many other types of workplace harassment.

Examples of a Hostile Work Environment

Harassers may make offensive jokes, call names, make physical or verbal threats, ridicule others, display offensive photographs, or impede another person’s work throughout the day.

A hostile work environment is created when anyone in a workplace commits this type of harassment, including a co-worker, a supervisor or manager, a contractor, client, vendor, or visitor.

In addition to the person who is being directly harassed, other employees who are impacted by the harassment (by hearing or viewing it) are also considered victims. They, too, might find the work environment intimidating or hostile, and it might affect their work performance. In this way, bullies and harassers can affect many more people than just the targeted employee.

Hostile Work Environments and the Law

Laws related to a hostile work environment are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Harassment becomes unlawful when the employee must endure the behavior in order to keep their job, or when it affects their salary or status. Hostile, abusive, or intimidating behavior is also considered harassment under the law.

Anyone who believes that their employment rights have been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. You can file charges in four ways: online via the EEOC’s Public Portal, by mail, in person, and by telephone.

You normally have to file your complaint within 180 days of the incident. There are opportunities for extension to 300 days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis. But it’s a good idea to file as soon as possible.

It is important to inform yourself about the definition of unlawful harassment in the workplace before filing your claim with the EEOC. The organization’s website has an online assessment tool that can help you determine if they will be able to help with your specific situation.

Employers are usually held liable for harassment caused by a supervisor or co-worker unless they can prove that they tried to prevent it or that the victim refused the help provided to them.

Alternatives to Filing a Claim

If you do not want to file a claim, but you find the work environment unbearable, you might consider other options. One is to solve the issue you are having with the person or persons making the work environment hostile. You might speak to your company’s human resources office for advice on setting up a meeting or mediated conversation between you and the other party.

If staying at your workplace is unbearable, you might also consider resigning from your job. However, even if you are extremely unhappy at work, it is important to resign gracefully and professionally. You never know when you will need a recommendation or a letter of reference from your boss, and a professional exit will help you get a positive review.

Hostility and the Job Interview

Occasionally, a job interview can be a hostile environment. For example, an employer might ask you inappropriate or illegal interview questions. These include any questions about protected characteristics like age, race, national original, gender (including gender identity and sexual orientation), religion, genetic information, etc.

If you’re asked an inappropriate interview question, only you can decide the best course to take. Although you’re within your rights to say that the question is illegal, it may be best to deflect. After the interview, you can decide whether you want to pursue a job with an employer that asks those kinds of interview questions.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.