Woman being scolded at the workplace

Hostile Workplace: How to Know You’re in One and What You Can Do About It

January 27, 2021

Hostile Workplace: How to Know You’re in One and What You Can Do About It 1000 667 Shegerian Law

All jobs, no matter what industry, are stressful to some extent. However, suppose an employee dreads going to work for various reasons, such as a bad boss, unpleasant coworkers, or a distressing work environment, among other things, it’s more than just general work stress. 

If going to work starts to make employees feel depressed or physically ill, that means they are coming into a toxic work environment, and some situations they face at work may be breaking some laws.

If there are signs that say you’re in a hostile workplace or you’re a victim of a hostile work environment harassment, you should act as fast as you can to address the issue immediately. 

What is a hostile work environment?

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

A boss or coworker whose behavior, actions, and verbal or nonverbal communication make your job more challenging and your time at the office unbearable shapes this antagonistic work environment.

Such cases imply that the atmosphere has negatively affected one’s right to work in a comfortable and safe work environment. It has changed the terms, conditions, and expectations of a pleasant workplace for employees. 

What makes a situation at work qualify as hostile?

The civil law term “hostile work environment” is a workplace discrimination claim. For a workplace to be considered as such, certain legal standards must be met. If the claim is of a coworker who always chats with other employees or a boss who has a favorite among their staff, they do not qualify the legal criteria. 

A hostile workplace is considered as such when it crosses the line legal line and meets the criteria below:

  • If it discriminates

When your hiring manager outright rejects applicants based on age, race, or gender, this means they are biased against a group or groups of people, which is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964). This law protects employees who may be discriminated against based on specific characteristics, such as racial discrimination, age discrimination, and religious discrimination. 

Moreover, discriminatory comments that are often stated casually or jokingly but create a toxic atmosphere for everyone, especially the subject of the tirades, can make employees feel uncomfortable and disrespected. 

  • If it is pervasive

What makes it illegal is when it involves pervasive bullying, lasts for a long time, and is not investigated and addressed enough by the company to stop. Of course, a severe remark or behavior in a single event is enough to make an employee feel unsafe, shaping a toxic environment. 

However, when ordinary employees find a behavior such as hostile work environment bullying or constant sexual innuendos that often happens at work, that’s when pervasiveness contributes to creating hostility. 

  • If it oppresses

Casual remarks, blunt comments, and minor isolated cases aren’t always enough to call a workplace hostile. For actions or behavior that warrant legal action, it needs to be severe to the point that it disrupts one’s quality of and will to work. 

This includes situations where a supervisor or people in a higher position threaten or treat a group of people differently based on their gender or color, causing the victims immense stress. Some may even call in sick or avoid going to work for a while due to its severity. 

  • If it is unwelcome

Unwelcome and inappropriate behavior or harassment, whether verbal or nonverbal, are actions that can make employees feel uncomfortable. 

Examples of this include showing graphic or vulgar images, making inappropriate sexual remarks or physical contact, asking someone about their sex life, committing workplace sexual harassment, and other forms of uninvited actions that makes one feel disrespected or violated.

  • If it is extensive

The National Labor Relations Act gives employees a right to form, join, or assist labor organizations for united bargaining or protection. This means people who work in privately-owned organizations have rights that encourage them to report or address unethical and high-risk work conditions, including management rules or practices that unintentionally or intentionally affect their employees.


Laws that protect employees

There are hostile work environment laws in place to protect the rights of employees for a safe workplace. 

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – The act states that no employer should “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 

Employers are also prohibited from violating workers’ rights to express their beliefs at work. 

  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act – The federal law disallows discrimination against workers aged 40 or older. It will be unlawful for employers to refuse a person employment solely based on his/her age. 
  • Americans with Disabilities Act – The act forbids employers from discriminating against employees or applicants with disabilities and ensures that people with disabilities are provided with the same employment opportunities. Moreover, the law protects employees with disabilities from retaliation when they impose their rights. 


Steps to take in addressing a hostile work environment

If you find yourself in such situations, there are ways you can deal with hostile work environment harassment. 

  • Use the company’s internal complaint process

If you strongly believe that your workplace is hostile, file an official internal complaint to your human resource department. You may think that this can get you in trouble or that the company may act against you, but know that federal law protects employees who file such complaints. 

Make sure to look into your company’s complaint procedure, put your complaint in writing along with the evidence, and submit it to the right person. 

  • Gather evidence

For your accusation to hold weight, you must have strong evidence of any unwanted action or behavior that occurred, including notes, messages, emails, or recordings. It’s also crucial that you prove that the management has been made aware of such toxic incidents to prove your case. Write down the discriminatory treatment or harassment you’ve been subjected to, including the time, date, and place. 

  • Be mindful of witnesses

Take note of anyone who has witnessed the discriminatory act, and reach out to that person if it’s okay to have him/her as witnesses. Document their names, contact details, and ask if they wouldn’t mind writing down what they’ve seen. If you wish to pursue the case with a lawyer, the lawyer can contact them for a credible account of the incident. 

  • Arm yourself with knowledge of the laws that apply

Research about labor laws to see which ones apply to your case. If it involves discrimination, there are federal laws that protect people with complaints around age, race, and disability discrimination. You can also look into your state or provincial laws if the federal law isn’t enough to help your case. 

  • Seek legal advice

If your employer fails to resolve the issue internally, it may be time to bring the case to court. Find credible lawyers who specialize in discrimination or employment law and even wrongful termination to explore your legal rights and seek professional advice on the viability of the matter. 

  • Include proof of the negative impact of the hostility to your health and performance

Gather the performance reviews or any form of work assessment that you’ve received from your job. This is one way you can prove that the hostile work environment and discriminatory behavior have negatively affected your work performance. If you’ve consulted with a therapist or doctor around the time of the incident, take note of that, as well. 

  • Always document everything

This has been mentioned before, but it’s worth emphasizing, especially if you plan to take things to court. Document everything, even the minor occurrences—the date, time, messages, notes, or other recordings that provide a clear and detailed account of the incident will strengthen your case. 


It’s time you put a stop to a hostile work environment 

A hostile work environment persists when it gets unbearable and uncomfortable to come to work, and the challenges and instances of uninvited and offensive actions continue. Trust your gut when you see red flags that signify that your workplace is toxic to the extent that it affects your (and other employees’) performance and quality of life. 

If you find yourself in the middle of a hostile workplace that gets worse each day, reach out to Shegerian and Associates for legal advice or representation. Together, let’s fight for your rights to a safe work environment. 

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