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What You Need to Know About Hostile Work Environment

09.19.2022 | Business Litigation

What You Need to Know About Hostile Work Environment

Know Your Rights About Hostile Work Environments

Not everyone loves where they work. Any job can involve difficulties and frustrations. But there is a big difference between the normal challenges of a workday and a hostile working environment. A hostile work environment is one in which employees feel scared, uncomfortable, or intimidated.

These negative feelings are often caused by the unwanted behavior of others. Unfortunately, this problem is common. About 20% of all U.S. employees are estimated to have experienced a hostile work environment.

You may suspect that your employees or coworkers are experiencing a hostile environment at work. If so, there are ways to solve the problem. In the following post, we will examine some of the most common circumstances that lead to a hostile work environment. We will also discuss some of the most useful solutions.

The Legality of Hostile Work Environments

Certain types of hostile work environments may raise legal liability issues for the company. For instance, any kind of discrimination or harassment based on a legally protected characteristic raises the possibility of a lawsuit.

Protected characteristics include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (includes pregnancy issues)
  • National origin
  • Age (employees 40 years of age or older)
  • Disability status
  • Genetic information

Accusations of a hostile working environment can also destroy the reputation of a business. However, not every disagreeable working environment rises to the level of illegality.

For example, not every type of unwelcome behavior from an employee will make a working environment hostile. Petty, short-tempered, or annoying behavior can make an office very unpleasant, but these types of actions aren’t necessarily illegal.

Just because an employee’s behavior is legal, does not mean it’s conducive to a healthy work environment. Avoiding lawsuits might be the biggest concern for employers, but it should not be the only one.

Problematic Behavior and Classifications of Hostile Work Environments

If a boss or employee regularly engages in unwelcome behavior, it can constitute a hostile work environment. Single incidents of an unwelcome behavior can also make an environment hostile if they are severe enough.

The phrase “unwelcome behavior” covers a broad range of problematic actions. Some of the most common types of unwelcome behavior include:

Racial or Sexual Harassment

Sadly, these two types of harassment are relatively common. Harassment of any kind is unacceptable and is likely to make a working environment hostile.

In a healthy workplace, offensive comments about someone’s race, sex, gender, or orientation are prohibited and dealt with promptly by management or HR. Racist or sexist attitudes and behaviors can easily increase tension in any workplace.


If you notice that a hiring manager regularly rejects job-seekers with certain characteristics, this may be evidence of bias. For example, if they do not hire women, foreign-born people, or older workers, they may be prejudiced against these groups.

Hiring bias may also signal that workers within these categories will face worse treatment than their peers. Ongoing bias in the workplace can make the working environment hostile. Discrimination against protected characteristics is illegal and may result in penalties for businesses.

Consulting with an accomplished business attorney can help you to identify and prevent these problems, addressing potential bias proactively before it can become a liability.

Ongoing Aggressiveness

Some bosses are tough and expect results. In seeking their goals, however, sometimes a manager can cross a line. If a manager or employee is consistently aggressive in their professional interactions, it may create a hostile work environment.

Some examples of aggressiveness include:

  • Shouting
  • Swearing
  • Using threatening language
  • Shoving

Obviously, the presence of physical violence is a sign of a hostile work environment. But aggression does not have to include physical violence in order to make employees feel scared or victimized. While healthy competition can be useful in certain jobs, aggressiveness can be a problem.

These are only a few examples of the types of behaviors that can lead to an unhealthy workplace. In a healthy work environment, employees should feel welcome, happy, and comfortable.

Useful Solutions

No matter what the cause of the hostile work environment may be, there are some reliable tools that can be used to resolve the problem. Communication is the most potent tool to address a hostile work environment.

If one person is engaged in the problematic behavior, they should be fired or reprimanded. Some hostile environments are the result of a toxic work culture. In these cases, the company may need a more systemic resolution. Some examples include:

  • Draft new company policies to deter bad behavior
  • Get executives to model and promote healthy work behavior
  • Make reporting harassment easy and take it seriously when it’s reported

These are only a few of the potential responses to a hostile work environment. Leaving a hostile work environment alone to fester can leave a company exposed to lawsuits. If you suspect that employees at your company are dealing with tough working environments, it may be time to get an outside perspective.

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