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How to Handle a Hostile Work Environment

Poor leadership, gossipy coworkers or after-hours work emails can be frustrating parts of any workplace. But as annoying as these situations are, they don’t count as part of a hostile work environment—legally, anyway.

Hostile work environments meet certain legal requirements (none of them good) and have a more serious impact on someone’s ability to work—making it nearly impossible to do their job or advance in the organization. If you think you’re dealing with a hostile workplace, read on for some telltale signs and steps you can take to resolve the problem.

What Makes a Work Environment Hostile?

There’s a big difference between a lousy work culture and a truly hostile workplace. And while a bad culture can add to the stress of a tense environment, there are other behaviors and situations that make a job hostile. Before we look at those behaviors, let’s define a hostile work environment: This is a workplace where abuse, harassment and/or discrimination get in the way of an employee’s job performance or create an intimidating or offensive environment.

The biggest difference between a hostile work environment and a crummy culture is how employees are targeted and mistreated due to personal characteristics they often can’t control (like their age or gender). And this mistreatment doesn’t just happen once, but over and over. Someone else’s constant bullying creates an environment of hostility over time and prevents the team from feeling safe, respected and able to do their job well.

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Signs and Legal Requirements of a Hostile Work Environment

It doesn’t matter who the bully is in a hostile work environment: They can be a coworker, supervisor, contractor, client, vendor or visitor who acts in offensive or aggressive ways. But the common theme is this person’s pattern of treating others with unwanted behavior, disrespect or harm over time.

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Now, here’s the thing about being a professional in the workforce: You’re always going to come face-to-face with other people’s annoying habits and quirks, but those usually aren’t hostile behavior. Examples of legally hostile workplace harassment include:

  • Saying off-color jokes that discriminate against someone’s age, gender, religion, race, sexual orientation or national origin
  • Calling people names
  • Making verbal or physical threats
  • Giving unwanted romantic or sexual attention
  • Sharing content or images that are inappropriate for a work setting

Hostility in the workplace can happen in-person, online, physically, sexually, psychologically, through power trips, etc. Unfortunately, a hostile work environment affects more than just the person being targeted. This behavior creates a toxic situation that causes discomfort and distraction for anyone else who sees or hears it. In a survey of 822 Americans employed full-time, 44% reported they’ve experienced workplace harassment, and 34% left a job because of ongoing harassment.1 These are huge numbers—and if this is happening to you, hear this: You don’t have to put up with it!

How to Deal With a Hostile Work Environment

In a hostile work environment, inappropriate or uncomfortable behaviors change the conditions (and expectations) of a comfortable and reasonable workplace. Small frustrations or inconveniences, like cold coffee in the break room, a coworker’s heavy perfume, or constant pen clicking, aren’t considered legal discrimination.

However, if you or a coworker experience constant and personal targeting that disrupts your performance or safety at work, that’s a big problem. When someone makes comments or threats putting down another person based on appearance, religion, age, gender or race, or if they interact with someone else in a physically threatening way, they’re guilty of creating a hostile environment and should be asked to stop.

How to Ask for Help

If you or a coworker experience workplace harassment, the first step to end the bullying is to ask them to stop the behavior that’s making you uncomfortable. But if you feel intimidated, you should go directly to a supervisor or your company’s HR department.

After you report discrimination or other hostile behavior to your leader, it’s the employer’s responsibility to address the problem and make sure it gets resolved quickly. If the harassment isn’t taken care of, the employer will be held responsible for creating a hostile environment by not taking action or correcting the problem.

When you dread going to work because your employer isn’t able or willing to stop the harassment, there are other organizations that can step in, like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It was created alongside the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legal discrimination in schools, workplaces and public facilities.2 The EEOC is a federal agency that upholds laws to make sure employers don’t discriminate against their employees. This includes protecting men and women from sex-based wage differences and discrimination against an employee at any point in their employment, including recruitment, hiring, paying, promoting and even firing.3 The EEOC tries to settle discrimination cases with employers, but if that isn’t possible, the agency will file a lawsuit.

(Here’s a quick note to remember: Reporting a claim to the EEOC means the burden of proof falls on the victim—so you need to prove that the discrimination is severe, unwelcome and prevents you from career success.)

You Deserve to Be Safe at Work

We spend about a third of our lives at work, and our careers have a huge impact on our overall well-being and life satisfaction. If you’re being bullied at work or experiencing a hostile work environment, I want you to take action and get in a safe situation immediately.

Whether you report the harassment to your leader or HR department, file a claim with the EEOC, or even find a new job, it’s important for harmful behavior to be stopped. If you’re trying to decide if staying in your job is the right decision, take my free Should I Quit My Job Quiz. You’ll get the confirmation you need in less than five minutes and walk away with a plan that gets you closer to your dream job. You deserve it!

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Ken Coleman

About the author

Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman is the author of the national bestselling book From Paycheck to Purpose and the #1 national bestseller The Proximity Principle. He hosts The Ken Coleman Show, a caller-driven show that helps listeners find the work they’re wired to do. Ken also co-hosts The Ramsey Show, the second-largest talk radio show in America, and makes regular appearances on Fox News and Fox Business. Through his speaking, broadcasting and syndicated columns, Ken gives people expert advice, providing strategic steps to get clear on their unique purpose and grow professionally. Learn More.

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