What is a Hostile Work Environment? How to Avoid Workplace Harassment

Making a living shouldn't cost you your physical or mental health. Read our guide about how to prevent and avoid a hostile work environment, from sexual harassment to bullying and beyond.

The American workforce is made up of more than 157 million people. Every single employee plays a vital role in the company they work for. While many workers might complain of boring tasks or repetitive responsibilities, many are unfortunately subject to a hostile work environment.

Every employer has a responsibility to make their workplace environment supportive, safe, and welcoming. This is why HR and office policy are in place to protect every worker. Unfortunately, some workplaces or employee behaviors fall through the cracks; this can result in workplace hostility.

Being employed in a hostile work environment can be very damaging to your mental health. It can also impact your career development and financial stability. So knowing how to spot and avoid hostile working environments is vital. 

Read on to find out how to identify, avoid, improve, and stay safe in a hostile work environment.

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What is a Hostile Work Environment? 

A hostile work environment is one that leaves one or more employees feeling intimidated, unsafe, and uncomfortable. Often this is the result of unwelcomed and unprofessional conduct by another colleague or group of colleagues.

The American Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handles some cases of workplace hostility. This includes cases of work environment harassment and discrimination based on age, gender, race, etc. 

However, other behavior can also make you feel uncomfortable in the office. Pressure, judgment, and adult bullying can all create uneven power dynamics and a hostile work environment. This can happen even if they aren’t technically illegal.

In fact, dealing with more minor hostile behavior quickly can prevent major things from escalating.

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Examples of Workplace Abuse

Most employees would say that their coworkers and immediate supervisors have the biggest impact on their overall job happiness. Because of this, bad behavior from colleagues, bosses, and managers can negatively impact this.

There are lots of ways that people can behave in an unwelcome, unsafe, or abusive way in an office environment. These include: 

  • Harassment, including sexual harassment or obscene sex acts
  • Racial harassment
  • Discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, disability, genetic information, religion, and sexual orientation
  • Consistent aggressive behavior
  • Ridiculing and victimization 
  • Physical abuse or threats of abuse
  • Microaggressions
  • Gossip
  • Cyberbullying
  • Retaliation

While there is plenty of room for fun and games in an office environment, there is no need for a condition or behavior which cause harm or risk of health hazard, both mental and physical. If one employee feels that they are the victim of adult bullying or exclusive cliques, it is important to keep take these allegations seriously.

Identifying the Signs of Abuse in the Workplace

Whether you’re a new employee, have been working at the same company for some time, or are about to accept an offer, it is important to look out for signs of office abuse and a hostile work environment. Recognizing abuse for what it is is the first step in doing something about it.

Some signs to look out for include: 

  • Colleagues warning you to avoid certain team members 
  • Aggressive or volatile behavior from team members
  • Vulgar or abusive remarks (often disguised as jokes)
  • Disrespect towards people’s boundaries in the workplace (which often leads to harassment)
  • Fear and apprehension
  • A lot of complaints being made to the company’s HR department
  • Frequent absenteeism
  • Employees who are burnt out
  • Employees complaining about their lack of job security
  • People singling out specific employees
  • Employees spreading rumors or talking about their coworkers

You will often get a gut feeling about a hostile work environment. These can feel very tense and uncomfortable. This is because the people working there find it hard to relax.

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Can You Fix a Hostile Working Environment? 

If you have a job interview at a company with a hostile working environment, you might want to think twice about working there, if you are lucky enough to be able to spot the signs early on.

However, if you are already working in a hostile environment, things are a bit more complicated. After all, the last thing you want to do is leave a job that you enjoy simply because of the people you work with. At the end of the day, this means that you will be the one missing out, while a bullying co-worker goes unpunished.

In that case, you might want to think about some of the things you can do to improve your working environment. Let’s take a closer look at these and the places that you can turn to for support.

1. Examining the Office Culture

In order to make a change in your office, the first thing to try and do is identify where the hostility is coming from. It might be that the whole office is engaged in hostile behavior or that they have poor staff training about issues such as:

  • Sexual harassment 
  • Discrimination
  • Workplace victimization
  • Abuse

When this happens, people are unable to see what sort of behavior is inappropriate. This can create a vicious cycle of hostile work environment harassment. 

Training schemes are a great way to highlight the flaws in this behavior and to find out ways to remedy them. This might come from team-building activities.

The whole idea is to address and reform the culture as a whole to make everyone happier. Authority figures in a company set the standard for this, so it is important to assess their behavior. When they lead by example this can make a world of difference in the workplace.

2. Dealing With Hostile Individuals 

Sometimes hostility in the workplace comes from one or two individuals. In that case, it is important to address their behavior directly.

You should always file an official complaint with your manager or the human resources department as soon as possible, no matter how minor something might seem. That way they can handle the issue for you, so you don’t have to deal with the individual directly. It’s a good idea to back up this claim with evidence or eye-witness accounts of abuse. 

Most HR departments will have a protocol in place to investigate each complaint, perhaps starting with performance reviews and leading up to expulsion or even a criminal discrimination charge. Multiple complaints about the same individual should be taken even more seriously.

It is also a good idea to follow up on your complaint with HR. This shows them that you are serious and want to see proper accountability, which leads us to our next point.

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3. Creating Accountability and Developing Policy

Bad behavior often escalates when someone thinks that they can get away with it. If they act abusively once and don’t suffer the consequences, they are much more likely to do it again. 

Because of this, it is important that your place of work have measures in place for accountability. You should be able to find these in the workplace policy. 

For example, racial discrimination should lead to a full investigation and suspension of the person in question. So if this happens to you and the person isn’t suspended, you should go to HR about this.

It is worth familiarizing yourself with company policy when you first join an organization. That way you will know how to report hostile behavior and and what should happen next with a work environment claim.

4. Taking it to the Top

Some people can also get away with hostile behavior in the workplace because their victims are afraid to speak out about it. Perhaps this comes from a fear of retaliation or worrying a hostile work or sexual harassment claim won’t be taken seriously.

However, you are well within your right to make a fuss if someone is behaving in an unwelcomed way at work. In fact, company policy (if it exists) is in place to let you do exactly this.

If your work doesn’t make a complaint seriously, don’t be afraid to take it to someone else higher up the chain of command. Taking a complaint to the top demonstrates that you are intent on resolving it. When a company sees this, they will be more likely to act quickly. 

However, when you do this it is important to use all of the appropriate channels outlined in your workplace policy. Make sure you put everything in writing and try to contact the outlined people first. That way you will be in a secure legal position. If the problem is severe or pervasive enough to warrant external support, contact the appropriate labor organizations to see about next steps.

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5. Taking a Break 

Bullying in the workplace can leave you feeling burnt out, anxious, and dreading going to work. Often people behaving in a hostile way will gaslight you to make you question your own experiences and confidence. It is also very hard to leave this kind of abuse at work and it can impact the rest of your life. 

This is why it is important to look after yourself if you do become a victim of hostile behavior. Make sure that you have someone to talk to about this behavior, like a therapist.

If you are really struggling, you may want to consider taking a break from your place of work. You could book in for some paid leave or ask to work from home for a while. This can really help to give you perspective on the situation so that you can plan your next move with a clear head.

How to Avoid a Hostile Work Environment

Being part of a hostile work environment can have a devastating impact on your mental health and future career.

There are plenty of things you can do to avoid hostility in the workplace. The most important thing is to act quickly and to use the official channels put in place by your human resources department, boss, and the company’s executives.

Well, that’s our article on the hostile work environment definition, the importance of countering negativity, bullying, and harassment in the office, and how to improve your own workspace. If you have any questions, feedback, or tips for elevating a hostile workplace, let us know below in the comments!

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Goodwall Team
Written By Goodwall Team
This article was written by the Goodwall team or by a contributor for publication on Goodwall. Goodwall is dedicated to helping students, entrepreneurs, and young professionals reach their full potential. We'll share thought-provoking and supportive articles on career advice, self-improvement, navigating the college landscape, climate action, social impact, and more. On the business side, we'll talk about SMB subjects related to community, diversity, talent acquisition, case studies, and enterprise.

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