Hostile Working Environment: The Signs And What You Need To Do About It

In today’s modern world, a positive workplace where every employee feels dignified, valued, and empowered is of utmost importance. A happy and healthy workplace means so much more than just a relaxed and productive atmosphere for the average employee.


For the worker to grow and flourish, he/she needs to be supported by a working environment that promotes a culture of equality and diversity, excellence, open and honest communication, compassion, respect, understanding, and cooperation.


Workplace bullying and toxic office culture have been hot topics in recent years, perhaps due to the advent of the #MeToo movement, and there have been resounding calls to identify their root causes and prevent inappropriate behavior from taking place. A lot still needs to be done, however, to protect the rights of all employees.


One in five workers in the United States experiences a hostile or threatening environment at work, which can include sexual harassment and bullying, according to a study by the Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School, and the University of California, Los Angeles.


A 2018 Pew Research Center analysis also revealed that three out of five women report being targets of sexual harassment, and nearly 70% of victims were harassed in a professional or work setting.


There should be a fine line between casual office banter and outright improper behavior. A deeper understanding of the red flags must be done to accurately point out when someone is already crossing the line and effectively deal with a hostile working environment.


What Makes a Work Environment Hostile?

What To Do If You Find Yourself In A Hostile Working Environment

Rude and narcissistic bosses, poor communication, office drama, personality conflicts, and many other events all contribute to a toxic culture and should be addressed by the management swiftly and efficiently. But just because the circumstances are annoying, difficult, and unpleasant doesn’t always mean they are illegal and constitute a hostile working environment.


Simply put, a hostile working environment results from harassment. Hostile workplaces are characterized by abusive conduct and unlawful mistreatment related to the employee’s race, sex, religion, color,  nationality, disability, gender identity, age, or other legally protected characteristics, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).


Context is crucial in investigating incidents that lead to a hostile working environment. These appalling behaviors are persistent, pervasive, and severe. They also have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with your work or undermining the terms and conditions of your employment.


Some of the most common and extreme forms of harassment at work include demanding sexual favors in exchange for a promotion or pay raise, making derogatory comments based on an employee’s gender or race, displaying offensive or graphic material, and intimacy that violates professional relationships among colleagues.


Harassment of any kind has no place in the workplace. These behaviors do not only negatively impact an employee’s feeling of self-worth and safety, but they also sow fear and apprehension and create a vicious cycle that is hard to resolve.


What To Do If You Find Yourself In A Hostile Working Environment

No matter how difficult the challenge may seem, do not hesitate to take the necessary steps if you feel that you are being subjected to a hostile work environment.


  1. Speak Up and Address the Issue Directly

This will not be easy, but the first step to protecting yourself is to tell your co-worker, boss, or any other colleague that his/her actions have harassed or offended you and are making you uncomfortable. Speaking up is a strong way of telling your harassers or offenders that you do not tolerate their egregious behavior. Remember to be firm about your stand but stay polite and professional.


  1. Document and Save

See to it that you have sufficient evidence to back up your claims. This will be important in case you’ll need to proceed with filing a complaint. Keep a record of all the things that happened—the specific comments and actions, including exact times, dates, and other relevant details. Save and print emails or other documents that contain offensive or discriminatory comments, language, threats, jokes, and other information pertinent to the harassment.


  1. Find Allies and Work as a Team

Find out from other co-workers if they have been subjected to similar harassment. If you are working in a toxic environment, it’s highly likely that there are many others who are also suffering from unjust treatment and abuse. There is strength in numbers—talk to them to see if they want to join you in filing a case.


It’s essential that you vent out about work, but ensure that you only share sensitive details to colleagues whom you can trust and who can act as your strong support network when the times get really tough.


  1. Escalate the Issue Appropriately

If you’ve tried everything within your power to stop your harasser or offender, but the issue persists, and his/her actions continue to prevent you from doing your job well or have even gotten worse, then the next step is to lodge complaints.


Thoroughly understand your company’s policies and procedures for reporting complaints. If there are none, seek help from the human resources department and other appropriate departments. It’s always best to put your complaint in writing and include all the documents and pieces of evidence you have collected.  Keep your emotions in check when filing the complaint and state only the facts.


Taking a Proactive Approach to Prevent Hostile Workplaces

Building a hostility-free workplace starts with those at the top. Leaders and stakeholders should not wait until incidents of harassment pile up before they take concrete and decisive actions. HR and top management must show employees they care and are committed to improving the workplace environment. They can do this by promoting a culture of respect, integrity, empathy, and trust.


  • Establish a Zero-Tolerance Harassment Policy

Have comprehensive and easy-to-understand policies and procedures in place to make it clear that harassment of any kind will be taken seriously and not be tolerated in the workplace.


The program should clearly define harassment and lay out specific examples of what hostile workplace harassment behaviors might entail. It should also outline the disciplinary measures that will be enforced for any violations. Always review policies to make sure they are up-to-date with the latest federal, state, or local laws and regulations.


  • Create Clear Procedures for Filing Harassment Complaints 

Communicate the anti-harassment policy and make sure everyone understands the process of reporting complaints. Employees must feel encouraged, comfortable, and safe to come out and share with the right people any experiences of harassment or abuse they experience at work.


The process of filing complaints should be simple and direct, and employees must be able to access readily the specific tools to address the situation confidentially. Leaders must thoroughly and completely investigate each incident and carry out the proper remediation without delay.


  • Facilitate Training and Awareness Programs for All Employees

Let employees participate in training programs that will equip them with the right tools, information, and resources about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior. Empower employees by making them understand their roles in eliminating and reporting on harassment in the workplace.


The training can include recognizing when harassment is actually taking place and the steps they must immediately take to report inappropriate behavior. It is best practice to schedule these training sessions regularly as part of efforts to mold and enforce a work culture where managers and employees behave professionally at all times.


The Final Word

Leaders should be proactive in auditing their workplace in an accurate, timely, and extensive manner. They should acknowledge and own up their shortcomings and take bold steps to counter negative behaviors and identify the gaps that bring the workplace culture down. Actively communicating goals, progress, and the company vision is key to keeping employees engaged and making them feel like they are essential parts of the process.


Apart from personality and background, a diverse and dynamic workforce will always have differences when it comes to opinions, views, and approaches on a wide array of topics, but all employees have the right to employment with dignity. The management and the HR team must work together to ensure that everyone has a fair chance at advancing and developing. Cultivate a culture where all contributions are acknowledged and respected.


Equally important is to ensure that all stakeholders commit to holding everyone to the highest standards. It’s up to senior leaders and the management to create a safe space for their employees to report incidents without fear of retaliation and ensure that all disciplinary measures remain consistent for all violators regardless of rank or title.


Creating a safe, healthy, and thriving work environment will require everyone’s active participation. Resolving harassment issues before they grow beyond control is essential to maintaining an effective and functional work environment.


When employees feel safe, secure, and cared for, they are inspired to do their best at work. They can fulfill their duties and reach their full potential. Not only will this mean better financial performance and a credible reputation for your business, but it will also lead to stronger trust, camaraderie, and positive experiences for all employees.


About the Author

Viridiana Valdes is an Experienced Marketing Specialist for Shegerian & Associates with a demonstrated history of working in the law practice industry. Skilled in Business Process, Negotiation, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Management, and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). Strong marketing professional with a Strategic Marketing focused in Marketing from Panamerican Consulting Group and Universidad Rafael Landivar.

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