3 Tips For Recognizing a Hostile Work Environment

It is fairly common, if you’ve worked at an organization long enough, to hear at least one ​employee complain about a “hostile work environment”. Tensions can run high at work and each person handles conflict differently, but how do you know when it has gone too far?

After a “hostile work environment” claim has been made it is then up to HR to distinguish whether their particular situation involves potentially unlawful conduct, bad behavior, or just the ordinary stresses of the workday.

Fortunately for your HR team, the term ‘hostile work environment’ is a legal term with a narrow definition, and so there is guidance on determining whether or not an employee’s case falls under this term.

The court has noted that a hostile work environment exists when an employee is “subjected to unwelcome harassment” that is “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to “alter his or her working conditions and create an abusive working environment.”

Here are 3 tips to help distinguish and identify signals of a ‘hostile work environment’

  1. The conduct is severe, and not just something that hurts the individual’s feelings.
  2. The conduct is pervasive or happens frequently.
  3. The conduct is based on a protected classification, such as race, sex, age, national origin, disability, religion or sexual orientation.

Examples of a ‘Hostile Work Environment’

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance noted by the EEOC.

Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:
  • The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take appropriate steps to prevent and correct unlawful harassment.

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