Defining a ‘hostile work environment’ is not necessarily a straightforward task as many people use the term to describe any unpleasant or stressful situation at work.
Even though factors such as a rude boss, uncooperative co-workers, an uncomfortable office and many other issues can make the atmosphere in your workplace very distressing, they might not always technically qualify as a hostile work environment according to the law, as one San Francisco employment lawyer has stated.
What is a Hostile Work Environment?
According to the law, a hostile work environment is defined as a workplace where the conduct of management or coworkers has created a discriminatory environment that an employee (or a group of workers) finds so derogatory or threatening that it ultimately impacts his or her the ability to work.
Clearly not all actions can be defined as harassment or descrimination.
However when there is inappropriate conduct directed at an individual or a group of employees based on a protected category they belong to, such as gender, sexual orienttion, age, race, religion, country of origin, disability etc., this is considered to be discrimination.
In such cases the employer must take action to address this behaviour and prevent it from becoming harmful and systemic.
If the employer is aware about such behavior but doesn’t address it or intervene in an adequate manner, then we are definitely talking about a hostile work environment.
Factors that Create a Hostile Work Environment
There are many causes of a hostile work environment but below are some of the main components that contribute to it.
It’s not an exhaustive list but it’s a pretty good starting point if you want to make an assessment or have seen some red flags.
- Discrimination – When an employee or a group of employees is regularly treated in a derogatory and disparaging manner based on their sex, age, religion, race, disability status or belonging to any other protected group, then this is discriminating and constitutes a basis for a hostile working environment. However, discrimination can be hiddent and unlike overtly racist or sexist remarks, can go unnoticed for a long time in organizations.
- Sexual Harassment – This is something that still happens quite a lot in the work place. Any form of sexual harassment makes your work environment a hostile one e.g. sexually suggestive language, making inappropriate gestures, sharing of explicit images or other content, unwanted touching or other forms of unwanted proximity.
- Intimidation – It can take the form of verbal and physical threats in the workplace and it is a sure sign of a hostile environment. Intimidation can also be implicit, and serve to sustain other forms of hostility such as discrimination, harasssment, sabotage or more forms of inappropriate behaviour. So if your employees are concerned about retaliation and this is stopping them from raising a case or complaint, then they are definitely intimidated and the situation needs urgent addressing.
- Health & Safety Risks – As an employer, you have the obligation to provide a safe working environment, by having the right equipment and procedures in place as well as training your staff on them. Unsafe work conditions definitely constitute a hostile work environment and even if you are compliant on all the other factors, you cannot ignore the health and safety of your workforce.
How to Prevent a Hostile Work Environment?
Maintaining a productive, open and friendly work environment takes a lot more effort than just the avoidance of a ‘hostile work environment’ according to its legal definition.
You should keep an open eye for any form of toxic behaviour, as according to a Harvard Business School study if you have a ‘toxic employee’ he/or she will harm your company and your bottom line much more than a highly productive superstar employee can benefit it.
Therefore the effort to prevent hostility, harassment and any form of unsafe and destructive behaviour should always go hand in hand with promoting a company culture based on positivity, promoting wellbeing, clear communication, transparency, employee development and focus on continuous improvement in all areas.
Regardless of whether you’re trying to establish best practices to prevent a hostile work environment or are dealing with an escalating situation of antagonism, here are a few actions you might want to consider:
- Establish a clear Code of Conduct for all employees;
- Establish a straightforward grievance procedure
- Communicate to employees and train them on the procedures;
- Be as transparent as possible in your policies, procedures and how to apply them;
A hostile working environment can seriously damage your company’s culture, productivity, reputation and ultimately hurt your bottom line.
Don’t underestimate the signals and always act in a timely and sensitive manner when you notice any signs.