What Is a Hostile Work Environment, and How Do You Fix It?

All business owners should ask: What is a hostile work environment? Then they should make sure the term doesn’t apply to their business.

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What Is a Hostile Work Environment and How Do You Fix It?

Do you have concerns about hostile work environments at your company? Over the last few years, people have been changing jobs at a breakneck pace, and it’s so prevalent that it even has its own term: The Great Resignation. According to the Department of Labor, more than 47 million people quit their jobs in 2021. In that climate, with an incredibly tight labor market, no one can afford to lose workers due to a toxic work environment.

Let’s start by describing the problem: What is a hostile work environment?

The legal definition of a hostile work environment

A hostile work environment occurs when an employee cannot get his or her work done due to the severely negative impacts of a supervisor, manager or coworker. The term hostile work environment is from civil law and is defined as “unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated in their place of employment,” according to the Legal Dictionary.

Employment discrimination and protected categories

To begin understanding hostile work environments, we must first examine employment discrimination and protected categories. Certain categories of people are legally protected against discrimination and workplace hostilities by specific laws, including the 1964 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employee harassment is unwelcome and in violation of one of the above-listed acts if the harassment is based on:

  1. Race, national origin, skin color, religious creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy status.
  2. The employee’s age. Age discrimination typically starts occurring around the age of 40.
  3. An individual’s disability, regardless of whether the disability is visible or invisible.
  4. Genetic information, including family medical history.

Understanding what isn’t workplace harassment

Petty disagreements or isolated incidents do not count as workplace harassment. Not everyone is going to get along and see every situation in the same way. In fact, disagreements in companies are normal. It’s even normal to occasionally get so bogged down with work that it cannot be completed in a timely manner.

Likewise, that employee that accidentally spilled your coffee, laughs very loudly, or keeps asking the same questions over and over again isn’t participating in harassment. They’re just being annoying in most cases. These types of incidents don’t become harassment until the conduct is so sufficiently severe and sustained that any reasonable person would consider it offensive, intimidating, or hostile.

What is offensive conduct?

Offensive conduct can be verbal discriminatory comments, physical violence, or inappropriate decor.

Offensive conduct can be verbal discriminatory comments, physical violence, or inappropriate decor. A few examples of hostile behavior include:

  • Insults and put-downs
  • Interference with work performance
  • Name calling, ridicule, and mockery
  • Offensive jokes, slurs, and epithets
  • Offensive pictures and objects
  • Physical threats, assaults, and intimidation
  • Sexual harassment

Under what conditions does workplace harassment occur?

Workplace harassment can occur under a variety of conditions from a variety of different people, including employees of the company and non-employees of the company, like a visitor, customer, or vendor. It’s important to note that the victim of the harassment and hostility doesn’t have to be the person that is directly experiencing the abusive behavior. It can be anyone who witnesses or is affected by the abusive behavior, and the unwelcome, unlawful or illegal behavior can occur with or without economic injury or dismissal or termination of the victim of the harassment.

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When does workplace harassment become illegal and the employer liable?

Legally proving that a work environment is hostile starts with taking a detailed look at how employees feel. However, there are other questions that must also be answered to determine if the inappropriate behavior is illegal, according to federal law, such as whether the abuse is:

  • Discriminatory?
  • Pervasive?
  • Oppressive?
  • Unwelcome?
  • Extensive?

Employers can be legally responsible if the behavior is in direct violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act and/or The Americans with Disabilities Act, and if there aren’t steps in place to correct that behavior. Additionally, the employer is liable if a manager or supervisor‘s discriminatory comments or inappropriate behavior results in a:

  • Termination
  • Loss of wages
  • Failure to hire
  • Failure to promote

Employers are also liable for the inappropriate behaviors and harassment by non-employees of the company if the employer knew about or should have known about the inappropriate behaviors and failed to put a stop to the behavior. Some examples of non-employees are customers, visitors, contractors, and vendors.

To avoid hostile environment claims and lawsuits, companies should take reasonable steps to prevent inappropriate conduct, including communicating that such behaviors are not acceptable and creating a grievance process so that they investigate all complaints in a timely manner.

To avoid hostile environment claims and lawsuits, companies should take reasonable steps to prevent inappropriate conduct,

What to do to help prevent harassment

Preventing harassment and avoiding a discrimination charge by one or more of your employees, including those who are a part of a protected class, starts with information. As a human resource professional, it’s important to set guidelines for appropriate conduct while outlining what’s considered unwelcome conduct and offensive behavior. You can do this through training courses and employee handbooks.

You also want to make sure that your company has a readily accessible process for handling grievances and complaints of harassment for protected group members, as well as other employees that the federal law doesn’t necessarily protect. This is because your primary defense against a hostile work environment claim is to show that you took reasonable steps to prevent, stop, and investigate harassment allegations.

If you’re looking for help when it comes to managing your workforce, preventing harassment and hostile work environments, and effectively managing complaints, requests and questions, consider Zenefits. We provide HR managing tools as well as Workest, which can help you stay on top of emerging trends and best HR practices.

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