Hostile Work Environment: What You Can Do As An Employer

A hostile work environment is an issue even shows like Mad Men – a drama set in the sixties that follows the lives of the ruthlessly competitive folks of Madison Avenue advertising – have plunged into. Founders, managers, human resources experts and legal professionals have all struggled to stipulate what is a hostile work environment and how to handle it.

Perhaps, the clue lies in the world ‘hostile.’ While it’s an ambiguous term, it also allows employers and practitioners of the law to witness it in all its forms as new cases and claims leading to a hostile work environment build up.

Definition of Hostile Work Environment

The Legal Dictionary formally defines hostile work environment as an “unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace that makes work difficult or causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or violated in their place of employment.”

This includes actions, communications or behavior of an individual (colleague, boss, client, and vendor) in a workplace that alter the foundation or expectations of a comfortable workplace environment.

In order words, anyone in the workplace can create a hostile work environment – a coworker, a supervisor, or non-employee, such as vendor, contractor or guest.

What is a hostile work environment?

Before we answer this question, we’ll explore what is not a hostile work environment. A common misconception is that a hostile work environment is a workplace that’s generally unpleasant. A bad boss. A gossiping coworker. An unhelpful HR. Lack of perks, privileges, benefits and recognition.

Unpleasant staff and colleagues will drive away hardworking employees, but it’s not illegal. Feeling underpaid, burned out, or generally unhappy does not constitute a hostile work environment either.

For a workplace to be legally hostile, it needs to go beyond the general inconveniences, nonsense joking and minor rudeness. Without a doubt, many of the issues mentioned above do contribute to an environment that may not be supportive of employees. A difficult boss contributes to an environment that employees may see as hostile.

But the truth is that for a workplace to be hostile, certain legal criteria must be met.

How to know if you’re in a hostile work environment?

First of all, instances of a hostile work environment are highly subjective. In the eyes of the law, hostile work environment cases meet the same criteria. It has to be;

Discriminatory in nature

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1966, and Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, protects employees who are discriminated against based on their gender, race, color, ethnicity and religion. The law prohibits discrimination against the ‘weak’, including employees who had a disability, take medical leave, or use workers’ compensation.

It should also be noted that it does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents.

Being discriminated against creates a hostile wok atmosphere for the employee, where they feel disrespected or unsafe. This behavior violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helps an individual pursue legal action.

The rules, however, don’t apply to all employers. Title VII does not apply to small business, private member clubs exempt from taxation, Indian tribes, and employers of foreign nations outside the U.S.

An individual has up to 180 days from the date of the last discriminatory act to face a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).


For a case to be a hostile work environment, the actions that create the hostility are long-lasting and not one of two isolated incidents or offhanded remarks. It’s only in extreme situations that one single event is enough to create a hostile work atmosphere.


In order to warrant legal action against a hostile work environment it must be viewed objectively. It is considered severe if it interferes with an individual’s career progress, or pushes an employee to avoid the workplace, call in work, or not perform at their full capacity.


All forms of harassment, misconduct, and inappropriate behavior need to be unwelcome. There needs to be proof that the employee asked the hostile individual to stop but the behavior continued.

How to handle a hostile work environment?

An employer may be held liable for the actions of managers, supervisors, or non-supervisory employees who create a hostile work environment. The best way to deal with a hostile work environment is by taking certain steps that effectively address how employees should report concerns and make complaints.

·         Establish an anti-harassment and complaint procedure, which should be distributed to all employees and posted in places of employer’s facilities and business locations.

·         Train and educate employees about harassment;

·         Your employee handbook should mention that the complaining employee must immediately report hostile behavior to a supervisor or manager. If the offender is a supervisor or manager, an independent channel of communication should be set up so the employee can effectively report a claim to the employer without fear of retaliation.

·         Your responsibility as an employer, once you’ve been made aware of a hostile work environment, is to promptly investigate the matter, form an understanding of the situation, and take appropriate corrective action. If necessary, you must discipline and/or terminate the offending individual as warranted by facts of the case.

When does it become legally actionable?

A 2015 study by Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, notes that nearly 20% of employees have been subjected to a hostile work environment. This includes verbal abuse, threats, sexual harassment, discriminatory or humiliating behavior and bullying in the workplace.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Were the incidents unwelcome?

Were the incidents discriminatory towards your federal and state rights?

Did the incidents occur repeatedly over a period of time?

Were the incidents objectively and subjectively hostile?

If the answer to each of these questions is yes, you have been exposed to a hostile work environment.

Getting help

If you find yourself in a hostile work environment, you can take proactive measures to stop it. Keep a journal. Document everything that happens, including what you’ve done to try stopping it.

Get information and advice. The HR Digest recommends reporting the misconduct to your employer at the earliest. If adequate steps have not be taken after complaining to your manager or supervisor, or if there is no one you can safely talk to at work, you may get the desired help from outside.

You can contact:          

Your workplace and safety authority to get advice and report incidents.

Contacting the police:

If the situation is violent or threatening it may be a criminal offense and you should contact the police immediately on 911

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

The EEOC to get advice, or to formally make a complaint about discrimination, harassment and bullying covered by federal and state laws.


Union representing your industry who can give advice on your options and rights.

Legal help:

An attorney to help you understand your rights under the federal and state law.

Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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