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Signs of a Hostile Work Environment (Plus Ways to Prevent One)

A hostile work environment creates a number of challenges in the workplace, preventing employees from effectively doing their jobs. For companies, this can be a big issue which can impact employee satisfaction, engagement and productivity. Below, we discuss what a hostile work environment is and how you can create a positive environment for your employees.

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What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is one where the words and actions of a supervisor, manager or coworker negatively or severely impacts another employee’s ability to complete their work. Any employee can be responsible for creating a hostile work environment.

Hostile work environment requirements

An employee with an unlikable bad habit or one that repeatedly bothers another coworker isn’t quite enough to create a hostile work environment. So what does?

A true hostile work environment must meet certain legal criteria, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). An environment can become hostile when:

  • Unwelcome conduct, or harassment, is based on race, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, age, disability or genetics
  • Harassment is continued and long lasting
  • Conduct is severe enough that the environment becomes intimidating, offensive or abusive

Learn more about these requirements below, and when a work environment is likely to turn hostile.

Work performance is hindered

To establish a hostile work environment, an employee must be able to show that the words and actions of a coworker or supervisor make it impossible to do their job effectively. This may include severe, pervasive and unwelcome behavior, or words or actions that, if not amended, would make the employee unable to function in their role.

Discrimination occurs

The coworker or supervisor accused of creating a hostile work environment has to display behavior that is consistent with discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and regulations maintained by the EEOC define discrimination as behavior against someone of a protected class, meaning discrimination that occurs based on gender (or gender identity), race, age, disability, sexual orientation or religion.

Effective handling has not occurred

When an employee makes a hostile work environment claim, there’s a chance their manager or employer has either witnessed the harassment or been notified of it. Once reported, it’s typically the employer’s responsibility to address the issue timely and effectively to find resolve. If not — if a case is ignored or handled poorly — the employer becomes responsible for fostering a hostile work environment.

Burden of proof

For any hostile work environment claims, regulators are required to look at the experience of the employee reporting it to ensure it meets the necessary criteria to make a case. This means the burden of proof falls on the victim of the behavior to establish a viable claim — one that includes discrimination that is severe, pervasive or unwelcome, and that adds additional burdens to their career movement.

Those examining a case may ask these questions to determine if a situation or environment may be considered hostile:

  • Was the behavior in question unwelcome?
  • Did the incidents occur multiple times over a period of time?
  • Did the incidents occur against someone whose class is protected?

Tips for creating a positive work environment

A big part of creating a safe working environment is preventing harassment from happening in the first place. Below are some tips for creating a positive work environment to avoid harassment and hostility:

Value employees

One way to make employees feel welcome (and safe to report harassment concerns) is to create an environment where employee voices and ideas are valued and encouraged. Everyone should feel like they perform to their strengths within the organization and that you, as a manager, feel employees are competent to do their jobs and bring value.

Consider keeping your office door open during certain times every day to be more available. You can also promote idea sharing, which shows employees you respect their input. Do this by asking for their feedback during decision-making processes or inviting them to collaborate on higher-level projects. All of this can help your work environment feel more inclusive, and create feelings of satisfaction and commitment among your team.

Promote open, clear communication

Communication is key to fostering a positive workplace. This is essential because in a hostile work environment, a strong first step for the victim is to address the behavior directly with the employee in question as well as let them know it’s unwelcome and inappropriate. In an environment where clear and open communication is valued, this type of communication can come with more ease.

It’s also crucial that you establish open, two-way communication with employees as a manager. You can do this by making time to talk to individual employees on a routine basis (e.g, once a week), establishing essential communication channels and being generally approachable and trustworthy.

Implement recognition programs

Acknowledging and rewarding the good work of employees makes them valued, trusted and part of the team. You might do this by recognizing an employee’s work at a staff meeting or by setting up recognition programs that include bonuses and rewards. Both are good practices for organizations that want to create a culture of success. While discrimination may still occur in a workplace where employees feel rewarded and valued, when employees are happy with their jobs, they may be less likely to adopt hostile behaviors.

Related: Sample Employee Recognition Letter: a Template

Make work fun

Happy employees do better work than ones that report less happiness. As a manager, you should maintain a professional environment, but one that also includes opportunities for fun during the workday.

One way to do this is encouraging employees to decorate their workspaces. Another option is to offer breaks that increase morale and make employees more productive upon their return. You may foster an environment of friendly competition between employees by having human resources or sales teams develop contests for a special prize, like a gift card or day off of work.

Related: 3 Fun Ways to Promote Culture at Work

Build an environment of trust

A couple of ways you can create an environment of trust is by releasing some control to employees to do their job without constant supervision, or by giving employees the green light to implement new ideas. If the right people are hired for the job, they’ll likely work well and be successful with minimal supervision once their initial training is complete.

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