How to Identify and Prevent a Hostile Work Environment (2022)

How Much Can a Hostile Work Environment Cost My Company?

Let’s consider a simple 1:1 hostility: When Joshua is off making sexist comments towards Kathy, productive work time is lost for both employees.

Not only that, but Kathy might take stress leave, use sick days to stay home and avoid the bully, file a workers’ compensation claim, or even feel pushed into resignation.

A recent study calculated that a company with 1,000 employees could lose $1.2 million a year due to the absenteeism and turnover caused by toxic employees.

On top of that price, you could face litigation costs and regulatory penalties.

Employee decides to file an EEOC complaint and/or lawsuit? You could pay thousands of dollars to handle it, plus time and stress.

If your organization is found to be non-compliant with a law like the ADA, you might have to pay hefty fines, not to mention the costs of cleaning up your public reputation afterward.

How to Identify and Prevent a Hostile Work Environment (1)

Is Hostility at Work Common?

According to a study conducted by Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, nearly one in five employees have been exposed to a hostile work environment.

This includes things like verbal abuse, sexual harassment, slurs, humiliating behavior, and bullying.

There isa series of trends that seem to arise from studies like these.

Individual Trends

Less educated workers, those who deal directly with customers, and younger workers are more likely to experience harassment at work.

Men are generally more likely to experience verbal abuse, while women are more likely to experience unwanted sexual attention in the workplace.

Nearly 35 per cent of men under 35 without a college degree report experiencing some type of harassment, abuse, or violence in the workplace, making them the most targeted group.

Career-based Trends

Certain industries and career paths are more affected as well. Healthcare professionals, especially nurses, experience a great deal of hostility from stressed-out patients and even their colleagues.

Industries that are fast-paced, competitive, and/or male-dominated can attract certain (often hostile) personalities. Examples of this in recent news include technology companies (Google), entertainment (The Ellen DeGeneres Show), financial services (Goldman Sachs), and law firms (Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund).

Can Social Media Contribute to a Hostile Workplace?

Before widespread social media use, hostile work environments were confined to the physical workplace. Now, employers and employees have to deal with online interactions as well, making the hostile work environment practically inescapable.

Social media platforms provide opportunities for self-expression, unfortunately including harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and other unsavory, unwelcome comments.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, 41 per cent of Americans have experienced some type of online harassment. As the boundaries between our work and personal lives blur, it’s likely that many of these victims are targeted by their coworkers.

These incidents not only harm the victim, but can also harm your company’s reputation, and even invite a lawsuit if you don’t treat them with care.

To better protect your company from social media harassment claims (and keep employees safe), implement a thorough social media policy. Your policy should include:

  • What is and is not acceptable social media post content
  • Who can post on behalf of the organization, such as on the corporate social media accounts
  • Disclaimer wording employees can add to their profiles (i.e. “Views my own” or “My posts do not reflect my employer’s opinions”)
  • Consequences of violating the policy

Some employees might feel emboldened online when they would never harass a colleague in the office. Remind your staff that the consequences of negative behavior is the same whether it took place online or offline. Manage and investigate social media harassment the same way you deal with in-person harassment.

Finally, require social media training for all employees. Outline the details of your policy, using examples to illustrate unacceptable behavior. Tell employees how and where they can report an incident if they’re the target of online harassment, too.

A social media policy can do more than prevent harassment between colleagues.

To ensure your policy includes everything you need to prevent employee issues and PR nightmares, download this free social media policy checklist.

Get the Checklist

Responding to a Hostile Work Environment

If you receive a complaint of a hostile work environment, take it seriously. If the complainant feels that their employer mishandled their report and forced them to continue working in a stressful environment, they could file a lawsuit.

Employees should be given theopportunity to report any issues they’re having with other colleagues, and they should feel confident that their complaint will be taken seriously.

  • Develop an internal complaint system that employees feel comfortable using, preferably with multiple reporting options.
  • Train managers, supervisors, and the HR team to detect and resolvehostility at work.
  • Use an effective complaints management system, such as case management software, to resolve issues faster.

Protect both the victim and your organization by looking into the issue before it escalates.

Is an Employee the Problem?

Does the complainant have issues with one or two coworkers in particular?

Start by interviewing both the reporter and the alleged harasser(s) to gauge the situation.In many cases, the offending employee doesn’t know that their behavior has offended the victim.

Explain to the harasser that the victim felt the harasser’s behavior was offensive, inappropriate, or discriminatory. Expressthat the behavior made someone elseuncomfortable, even if they didn’t have malicious intent.

Finish by telling them that the behavior will not be tolerated in your organization. With each incident, check that your harassment training is up to date with best practices and your company’s ethical standards.

Issues like these are relatively simple to resolve. If possible, get the two employees together to resolve the problem quickly and fairly using Alternative Dispute Resolution techniques such as mediation or arbitration.

Along with training and strong policies, you can prevent a hostile work environment by building ethics into your company culture. When employees are encouraged to behave ethically in all aspects of their job, they’ll be less likely to sully a coworker’s workplace experience.

Disciplining an Employee? You Need Strong Documentation.

If problems escalate and an employee takes a colleague to court, you, as the employer, can be held liable for not protecting the victim. Document how you handled the incident using this free disciplinary action form to protect your organization.

Get the Template

Is Your Organization the Problem?

In some organizations, the company culture is a hostile work environment for some employees.

If hostile conduct is being encouraged by senior-level staff, the best way to approach the situation is to overhaul your culture by assessing current policies, procedures, and standards.

To encourage change:

  • Implement bullying, harassment, and discrimination training
  • Implement special training for managers on helping their employees if they’re victimized and avoiding hostile behavior themselves
  • Build and strengthen coworkers relationships through team-building events
  • Develop strict policies and guidelines concerning behavior at work (such as a Code of Conduct)
  • Enforce these policies consistently
  • Updating your company’s vision, mission, and values to include ethical behavior
  • Hold your company accountable to your ethical standards by sharing them publicly on your website
  • Survey employees to uncover problem areas within your organizational culture
  • Use case management software to track, manage, and investigate incidents efficiently

What’s the BestWay toStop Hostility at Work Right Now?

First, nip it in the bud.

The Department of Labor found that the most effective way to reduce harassing and hostilebehavior is to categorize it as misconduct.

What begins as one rude comment or lewd joke can lead to a situation that negatively affects not just the victim, but the entire workforce. Eliminate the behaviors before they become severe and long-lasting enough to violate the law.

By doing so, you’ll earn a reputation as a caring employer and avoid lawsuits from disgruntled employees and non-compliance fines from regulatory bodies.

Second, remember that culture starts at the top. Encourage senior managers to set good examples for workplace conduct, rather than behaving like “brilliant jerks.”

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