Hostile Work Environment: How to Know & What You Can Do

It’s common for work to become challenging and stressful, regardless of industry. However, if you start dreading the job because of how your boss or colleagues treat you and others, it could mean something is wrong. You might be working in a hostile work environment.

What exactly does a hostile work environment mean? What are the conditions that make one? In most situations, it could mean company employees are breaking federal laws intended to protect their colleagues from such environments.

You should act quickly to address the issue if you realize you’re in a hostile workplace or a victim of hostile environment harassment. But first, understanding what constitutes a hostile work environment helps determine whether you’re in one.

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is one where a superior’s or coworkers’ toxic and offensive verbal or nonverbal behavior severely affects other employees, making them feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, scared, or intimidated. It can make the job unbearable, disrupt employees’ ability to fulfill their responsibilities, and negatively affect their physical and mental health.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protects employees from hostile work environments. Although laws are enacted to keep employees safe, some businesses fail to adhere to them, which affects employees in numerous unfortunate ways if left unaddressed or unreported.

The Effects of a Toxic Work Environment

Toxic work environments are unproductive, detrimental to an individual’s well-being, and can greatly disrupt organizational stability.

Studies about the effects of a hostile work environment confirm that employees who work in one or experience hostile environment harassment are much less engaged and more likely to spread negativity among coworkers. It can drain the motivation and morale to continue working, slowing the production process.

However, there are also cases where a toxic work environment can indicate there is too much work. A clear sign of this is the severe lack of work-life balance, where managers may often contact you outside of work hours or assign you to work on weekends.

The Physical and Mental Toll of a Hostile Work Environment

It wouldn’t be surprising for employees to develop psychological and physical health issues in a hostile work environment. Studies found toxic workplaces can lead to clinical depression, anxiety, and employee burnout.

According to the Office of the Surgeon General, constant stress, like what one may experience in a toxic workplace, can lower sleep quality, raise muscle tension, and increase the chances of developing illnesses.

While it’s often easier to experience these effects before seeing the signs, it’s best to equip yourself with the knowledge of what constitutes a hostile work environment to keep you and your colleagues safe before it’s too late.

What is Considered a Hostile Work Environment: 4 Telltale Signs

What behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment? Discrimination, shaming, harassment, and poor communication are all part of it. Even your dream job can feel like a nightmare in a toxic work environment. Let’s delve deeper into these factors.

1. Discrimination is persistent

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against employees based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). It can manifest in several ways, including refusal to hire someone based on their sex, making racist remarks, or perpetuating the glass ceiling in the workplace.

2. Shaming is part of the company’s culture

A culture of shaming involves making others feel guilty for any reason, whether it’s not getting as much work done or taking a vacation. This culture encourages employees to segregate into cliques and further causes rifts in the company.

3. Sexual harassment often happens

Sexual harassment can be as blatant as asking for sexual favors or as subtle as unwarranted physical touches. Often, it can be difficult to tell whether someone is acting maliciously or is being too friendly in cases of subtle sexual harassment. No matter what form, sexual harassment behavior in the workplace is illegal and needs to be addressed immediately.

4. Internal communication is poor

Poor communication among employees is a trait that people don’t often realize is a sign of a toxic work environment. This includes radio silence among workers who have unresolved conflict and failure to actively listen to one another.

Businesses thrive on clear communication among employees. Without it, the company’s performance dips, and the workplace becomes toxic.

Once you’ve identified these signs and found them recurring during your regular operations, the best action you can take is to report them.

5 Steps in Reporting and Proving a Hostile Work Environment

Taking the initiative to report your hostile workplace can be intimidating. But know that it will benefit you, your colleagues, and other victims. Follow the five steps below to learn how to prove a hostile work environment.

1. Document and gather evidence

Take note of every hostile act that happens in the workplace, even the minor ones. Document the incident’s date, time, and context in which it occurred. You should also gather evidence about the occurrences, from messages and emails to recordings and photos.

Other documents you can use are performance reviews or work assignments you received from your job. If you consulted with a therapist for mental health issues or a doctor for physical health concerns from your job, you could note those, too.

These can highlight how much your hostile work environment impacted your work. Your documentation will be invaluable and strengthen your case.

2. Use the company’s internal complaint process

File an official complaint to your human resources personnel. Many believe this can get them in more trouble. In reality, federal laws protect employees who file such complaints. Look into your company’s complaint procedure to learn how to report a hostile work environment.

3. Reach out to witnesses and other victims

If you notice the toxicity of your workplace affected multiple people, contact them to help you strengthen your case further. It makes your claims far more credible, showing that such actions weren’t random.

Ask for their consent before using their names and contact details. Working together to find solutions for the hostile workplace can reduce pressure.

4. Seek legal advice

You should consider contacting a legal professional if your employer fails to resolve the issue.

It’s best to seek the guidance and assistance of a credible lawyer specializing in labor law, such as our employment attorney Los Angeles experts at Shegerian & Associates. They will help you understand your legal rights and explore the subsequent actions you can take to resolve the issues of your hostile workplace.

5. Arm yourself with knowledge of the laws that apply

It helps to research the laws that could apply to your case, even if you’ve already reached out to a lawyer. It will make you even more prepared should you appear before a judge. Research federal, state, and provincial laws to help you get a clearer picture of your legal concern.

A few laws you should be aware of include the following:

No Place for a Hostile Work Environment

A global Gallup survey says roughly one in five employees (23%) experienced harassment or hostility in the workplace. Hostile workplaces stifle personal and professional growth, encouraging discrimination and overwork.

It helps to recognize what behaviors and factors constitute hostile work environment harassment. Doing so will help you identify if you’re working in one and how to begin acting against it. Learning what’s hostile work environment behavior can also help you know what is and isn’t appropriate in a professional setting.

If you find yourself in a hostile workplace, contact Shegerian & Associates for legal advice or representation. Together, we can fight for your rights to a safe work environment.

Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.