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4 ways to prevent a hostile work environment

February 7, 2022 - 14 min read

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What are hostile work environment behaviors?

Legally, what qualifies as a hostile work environment?

How to handle a hostile work environment

4 ways to prevent a hostile work environment

Let’s face it: it hurts to feel like you don’t belong. You are aware that your position, your membership in a group or community, is not secure. 

When you don’t feel a sense of belonging in your workplace, it can affect how you feel about yourself and your abilities. You don’t participate fully. Unsurprisingly, low belonging is associated with decreased performance and willingness to help co-workers.

A hostile work environment is a lack of belonging on steroids. 

It has both legal ramifications and competitive ones. A hostile work environment kills culture and commitment

Hostility is poison. So when hostility comes out to play in a work environment, it can threaten the well-being, mental fitness, and work performance of a team, a department, or your entire workforce. 

Unfortunately, a hostile work environment can be more common than you may think. And when it comes to work, hostility shows up in many different ways — and may not be immediately recognizable. 

In the pre-pandemic world, one study found that one in five American workers experienced their workplace as hostile or threatening. More than half of American workers report facing unpleasant or potentially hazardous conditions. The shift of some parts of the workforce to virtual and remote work doesn’t mean the problem of workplace hostility has gone away.

It’s important to recognize — and address — hostile work environments, for both your own health and well-being and that of your teams. 

While hostile work environments can present themselves differently, the negative impact is undeniable. We’ll outline common hostile work environment behaviors, how to handle them, and the legalities behind them. 

What are hostile work environment behaviors?

Before we identify common hostile work environment behaviors, it’s important to understand what hostility in the workplace means.

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment violates the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But what does that look like in behaviors?

We’ve outlined some common hostile work environment behaviors that you may witness or be victim to: 

  • Unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy) 
  • Unwelcome conduct based on national origin, age, or genetic information
  • Unwanted touching or sexual harassment 
  • Offensive jokes (often with protected categories of people as targets) 
  • Discussing sex or sexual acts (including usually sexually suggestive language) 
  • Unwanted commentary on physical appearance 
  • Racist or offensive terms, photos, or slurs 
  • Inappropriate gestures 
  • Unwanted physical contact or touch 
  • Workplace bullying or gaslighting 
  • Intentionally sabotaging an employee’s work or career 
  • Other discriminatory behavior against categories protected by the EEOC 

Hostile work environment behaviors are defined as offensive to any reasonable person. While these behaviors may present in different ways in real-time interactions, if you are experiencing hostile behaviors, it’s important to recognize when they happen and document the harassment. 

Beyond the legality, if you are leading a company or any type of team, you can’t afford to let a hostile work environment develop. It will drag down the performance and motivation of everyone, not just the target.

And as a leader, you have an obligation to create a work environment where all of your employees feel able to do their work effectively, free from harm or threat. 

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Legally, what qualifies as a hostile work environment?

Employment law reinforces what we know to be true: a hostile work environment is wrong. But legally, what qualifies as a hostile work environment? 

Every state, country, and region is different. Legislation exists in different states but on a federal level, we look to the EEOC for guidance. In many cases, the employer is held liable. 

Here are 3 determinants when looking at how to legally qualify hostile work environments: 

  • Hostile behavior or conduct that’s become pervasive or long-lasting 
  • Hostile behavior that has been failed to be addressed or investigated
  • Any harassment by a manager or leader that results in a negative retaliation (like getting fired, failure to promote or hire, or loss of wages)

In many cases, a hostile work environment needs to be defined as harassment in order for legal action to be taken. In legal investigations of allegations of harassment, the EEOC looks at the entire record. This includes examining the nature of the conduct and the context in which the incident(s) occurred.

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But the EEOC also looks at whether or not the harassment was severe or pervasive. The organization also looks at bystanders or employees who may have known about the behavior but failed to take action. They’ll also take into account any whistleblower accounts or testimonies. 

How to handle a hostile work environment

As an employee

If you’re the victim of harassment in a hostile workplace environment, it can be challenging to know what action you should take. Handling a hostile work environment is no easy feat because the hostile behaviors tend to undermine your confidence, well-being, and support network at work.

It won’t resolve itself, and the longer the behaviors persist unaddressed, the more they will damage you. It’s important to lean on the support of legal resources, your HR department, and mental fitness supports (like coaching) when navigating this situation.

  • File a formal complaint with HR. First, make sure you file a formal complaint with your HR team. Federal law is on your side and should act as protection — and your HR team will be well-versed in what legally qualifies as harassment, discrimination, or oppression. 
  • Gather (and document) evidence. Take careful note of the incident(s) or harassment, especially if the behavior is long-lasting or persistent over a period of time. 
  • Be aware of any witnesses. It’s likely that if you’re noticing hostile behaviors, others notice it, too. Maintain a level of awareness for any witnesses that may see hostile workplace behavior — and make note of it. 
  • Look for legal advice. If you feel like your complaint isn’t taken seriously or if the behavior hasn’t been addressed, it’s time to seek legal counsel. 
  • Protect your mental health and well-being. Hostile workplace behaviors undoubtedly will impact your mental fitness and well-being. Make sure you’re prioritizing you as a whole person and human being before your work.

    Whether that’s excusing yourself for a break or removing yourself from interactions, do what you need to protect yourself and your mental health

As an employer

As an employer, any case of workplace harassment in your organization is serious. It should be treated with the utmost respect and integrity and investigated thoroughly. Here’s how to handle any incidents of hostile workplace behavior in your company

  • Establish written guidelines and policies. Every organization should have an employee handbook and code of conduct. With written guidelines and policies reinforcing positive behavior, it should be extremely clear how employees can and can’t act in the workplace. 
  • Hold mandatory trainings. Consider ways you can further educate your employees through training sessions. For example, organizations implement mandatory workplace harassment and discriminatory trainings for all employees (not just managers). It’s especially important to ensure your HR and legal teams are familiar with employment law and reinforce thorough training. 
  • Investigate every complaint. Failure to investigate a complaint can result in negative consequences for your organization. No matter what, take each complaint seriously and do your due diligence. 
  • Hold people accountable. Addressing any misconduct is critical to preserving the integrity of your organization and protecting your employees. Take action and hold those accountable who have perpetuated bad behavior. 

4 ways to prevent a hostile work environment

As an employer, proactively preventing a hostile work environment is one of the best things you can do for your organization. In addition to the mechanisms above, try these three tips. 

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  1. Create a zero-tolerance policy. By creating a zero-tolerance policy, you’re showing your employees you care. You’re also showing that you’re serious about workplace harassment and hostile behavior. Clearly define how your employees should behave. Any violation of those guidelines should result in immediate action.  
  2. Train and educate your employees — often. Trainings and awareness programs should happen at every level of your workforce. Trainings aren’t just for new hire orientation, either. Make sure you’re educating and driving awareness within your employee base often. 
  3. Address culture across the workforce. Consider how coaching can help. Coaching will uncover hidden biases and reinforce more positive and productive behaviors.

    Group coaching sessions help employees try out new approaches. In individual coaching, personalized development from BetterUp can help your workforce thrive.

    Employees who work with a coach report better overall performance, motivation, creativity, focus, and innovation. A coach will also be able to help guide employees through difficult situations and, in some cases, prevent them. 
  4. Take action. When something is wrong, take action. Failure to do so can result in negative consequences both for your employees and your business. 

Foster a thriving workforce 

A hostile workforce interferes with your ability to succeed as an organization. If you're a victim of workplace harassment, offensive behaviors interfere with your life and future.

Get educated on discrimination laws and discriminatory conduct. It's also important to get to know your state's laws and document any unwelcome conduct. 

But don’t stop at legal compliance. Your organization will succeed when your people are experiencing inclusion and belonging where their work is valued and they are set up for success in their work.

Remember, any workplace bullying and workplace harassment is wrong — no matter how trivial it may seem. Take complaints seriously and do everything in your power to prevent offensive conduct.

Consider ways professional coaching can help build the mental fitness of the workforce at your organization. With support for well-being and the tools to develop themselves and create inclusive environments for others, your employees can thrive.

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Published February 7, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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