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A hostile work environment is a toxic work environment—but one that’s ratcheted upseveral notches.
It’s more than havinga boss who doesn’t listen well ora coworker who’s gossipy (though those problems can be difficult to deal with as well).
Rather, a hostile work environment is a workplace that consistently doles out harassment and discrimination—to the point where work becomes intimidating or abusive.
According to attorney Brad Nakase, ahostile work environment is “a workplace that intimidates employees and makes them feel uncomfortable and/or scared due to unwelcome conduct.”
As an employee, you have legal rights that protect you from being targeted by or witnessing this kind of behavior, but it’s important to know what constitutes harassment and what is considered a “petty incident” or a one-off offensive slight.
If you’re experiencing any sort of bad workplace behavior, you may wonder if you’re in a hostile environment, legally speaking.
And it can be hard to determine what constitutes this since the lines of toxicity to straight-up hostility can be a bit blurry. Below are six signs that you’re in an outwardly hostile workplace.
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,workplace harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”
While any harassment is of course unethical and unkind, what takes harassment and makes it unlawful, according to the EEOC, is when:
- The person being harassed (or witnesses to the harassment) must endure the behavior in order to stay employed.
- The harassment is “severe or pervasive enough” that the environment would be considered intimidating or abusive to an average person.
6 Signs of a Hostile Work Environment
If you’re wondering whether bullying at work is technically illegal or just someone being mean, here are the red flags that you’re dealing with more than just bad behavior—that it’s likely straight-up workplace hostility that may be illegal.
Sign #1: It's a toxic work environment.
A toxic work environment doesn’t mean you’re necessarily in a hostile work environment. But a hostile work environment means you’re in a toxic workplace. Make sense?
In other words, if your workplace is toxic—if you’re experiencing or witnessing bullying, gossip, exclusion, insults, miscommunication, or any of the other telltale signs of a toxic work environment—your spidey senses should kick into gear.
Toxic behavior can quickly slide into outwardly hostile behavior. If you’re seeing these signs, start to watch for hostility.
What to Do:We’ve said it over and over again, but data is your friend in any situation like this. This is when it’s important to start taking stock of what’s happening and start taking careful notes about each incident.
It’s one thing if someone makes an unkind remark about a colleague’s work in a stressful situation (still not cool, obviously, but likely not considered hostile). It’s another if you start to notice consistent bullying or discriminatory actions based on sex, age, color, religion, or other similar factors.
Date each incident and provide as much detail as possible. Your notes will matter here, as they may be considered evidence of hostile behavior, should the situation escalate.
At this point, we also recommend immediately speaking with your manager and/or with human resources. If you’re noticing toxic behavior enough to record it, it’s also time to report it. Do your due diligence.
Sign #2: The hostile workplace behavior happens consistently.
The EEOC’s explanation of workplace harassment specifically notes that the harassment must be “consistent” and “pervasive” to be considered illegal. “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality,” their definition notes.
This means that a one-off incident in which a supervisor makes a discriminatory remark toward an employee may not be considered workplace hostility, in a legal sense. (Though we’d still recommend reporting this to your supervisor or HR).
Watch for this behavior to happen consistently over a period of time.
What to Do:You probably guessed it...more note-taking and data collecting. If you can prove it’sconsistent, you can prove it’s pervasive. Thorough records of the incidents you’re experiencing or witnessing will help show that harassment is taking place. And, again, reporting the behavior to the appropriate parties is important here too.
Sign #3: The hostile behavior becomes aggressive.
Bad workplace behavior doesn’t have to be physically aggressive to be a sign of workplace hostility (though if you’re seeing that, certainly report it). Aggression can look like verbal attacks, spiteful comments, or cruelty toward someone in general.
Aggression will likely look like standard bullying behavior at work. If you’re seeing that, you’re likely in a hostile workplace.
What to Do:If your physical safety or the safety of another person is at risk, immediately intervene, in the safest way possible. This may be one of those rare moments in whichrage-quitting and walking out is okay.
This is also the prime time to speak to HR and consider reporting the behavior to proper authorities (which we’ll discuss below).
Sign #4: The hostile behavior is discriminatory.
Per the EEOC’s definition of harassment, bad behavior must violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, or the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
A telltale sign of a hostile work environment is if the behavior you’re experiencing or witnessing is discriminatory based on “race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), or genetic information (including family history).”
If you hear a manager speaking poorly about an older colleague, experience unfair treatmentbecause of pregnancy, overhear racist or sexist remarks, or experience gender discrimination, you may be in a hostile work environment.
This would also look like sexual harassment of any sort, including lude comments or explicit material circulating.
What to Do:Speak up. If you notice that this is happening, immediately go to your manager (assuming they’re not the perpetrator). If they are, go to HR—with your notes about the incident(s) in hand.
Even if the behavior doesn’t rise to the level of true harassment, it’s still likely grounds for intervention.
Resources for BIPOC Community:
- Live Another Day: Extensive information on mental health and substance use resources for People of Color. Their mission is equal access to life-saving resources.
- Detox Local:An excellent resource that features abundant information including mental health and substance use resources specifically for the AAPI (American Asian and Pacific Islander) community.
Sign #5: The behavior disrupts the ability to work or the ability to move forward in one's career.
If the behavior is so bad that it’s interfering with work, it’s probably considered hostile behavior.
For example, if you’re being bullied by a colleague or supervisor to the point that you’re unable to concentrate on your work, that’s likely harassment.
Similarly, if you’re worried about being able to move up the ladder in your career because of a supervisor who constantly berates you and causes emotional distress, that’s likely harassment.
What to Do:If this is the case, it’s likely time to speak with HR and then jump ship and quit. No job is worth being constantly berated or victimized. Moving up the ladder isn’t worth sacrificing your mental health. You may also wish to report this behavior to proper authorities.
Sign #6: The victim of the harassing behavior feels stuck.
Finally, a sign of a hostile workplace is feeling like you can’t get out.
Your colleague or boss may make you feel as if you won’t be able to find another role, that your skills are obsolete, or usegaslighting techniques to make you question your own experiences or what you’ve been witness to. All of these are major red flags.
What to Do:First, realize that you’re never stuck. We realize that our jobs are often tied to our health insurance, that they’re our sources of income, and that these are things not to be taken lightly. If you’re feeling bullied and afraid to quit your position, however, it’s time to speak with management about your concerns and then do your best to prepare to get out.
This may look like spending some time preparing your finances, looking for a promising new job, or speaking with a lawyer about how to best proceed.
Examples of Hostile Behavior at Work
There are all sorts of hostile work situations. That said, the EEOC’s definition of what rises to the level of illegality includes pervasive discriminatory behaviors. Here are a few examples of behaviors that would be considered hostile.
- Sexual harassment like sexually suggestive behavior, showing photos, unwanted physical touching, making sexual jokes, or invading someone’s personal space
- Discriminatory, racist comments or jokes, or ethnic slurs
- Consistently commenting on someone’s appearance
- Group shaming of a single person
- Sabotage of a person’s work
- Unwelcome touching of any kind
- Threatening behavior
It’s also important to remember that hostile work environments aren’t limited to hostility in an in-person situation. Examples of a hostile remote work environment could include:
- Forming an online group that excludes a colleague for the sake of shaming or bullying
- Posting photos of a colleague online
- Online bullying through chat or social media platforms
- Sabotage of someone’s work online
How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment
It’s tricky to prove whether your workplace is hostile or simply toxic. In the event that the situation has become severe enough to escalate matters, you’ll want to do a few things.
First, you must have done your due diligence.
This means you’ve collected data about the behavior you believe to be hostile, and you’ve asked your manager and HR to address it. You’ll want to document your discussions with your boss and HR as well. Any tangible proof you have is helpful.
At that point, your employer has been made aware of the situation, and it’s their duty to solve the problem. In fact, the employer may be liable for allowing the behavior in the first place, so it can be detrimental for them if they don’t intervene at this point.
This may mean termination of the offending employee, or they may put the employee on a behavior correction plan. Either way, this will hopefully solve the problem. And note thatthe EEOC protects employees from retaliation for filing a complaint with an employer.
If it doesn’t solve the issue, however, and you’ve decided to take legal action because of a severe case, you’ll again want to compile lots of data.
You’ll need physical evidence of the discriminatory harassment (this might look like screenshots or photos), written and dated records of the interactions, and witness statements, and your next step would be toconsult an attorney such as hostile work environment attorneys.