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The repercussions of a hostile workplace can devastate a company. Although misconduct and improper treatment are not tolerated in most workplaces, they’re still a relatively common occurrence. Men and women enter the world of work with hopes of fair treatment, benefits, and security. However, sometimes even those basic expectations are little more than an assumption, the reality can include serious problems.

Knowing how to prevent a hostile workplace from forming — and how to handle one if it arises — is one of the key elements of good management. Business owners need to arm themselves with the tools to ensure that their employees are not the victims of hostile work environments. They have a responsibility to protect the rights of their workers, and this is especially true when workers suffer from harassment or discrimination on the job.

What Makes a Workplace Hostile?

The fallout from a hostile workplace can ruin a business. People enter the workforce with hopes of fair treatment, benefits, and security. If those expectations aren’t met, a hostile workplace may be at fault. A hostile workplace is one in which the environment is so intolerable that it creates a risk of physical or emotional harm to employees. It can stem from verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination based on age, race, and other factors.

Unfortunately, identifying a hostile workplace isn’t always easy. A supervisor may be rude or offensive to an employee in one instance but not mean it personally. Such behavior could be part of a larger pattern of abuse, or it could simply be an isolated incident. In either case, employees need to understand what constitutes a hostile workplace and what steps they can take if they find themselves in one.

Some of the classic signs of a hostile workplace could include things like:

  • Offensive language and jokes: Using words or phrases that are racist, sexist, or otherwise demeaning toward other workers.
  • Name-calling: Calling a coworker a derogatory name or making fun of someone’s physical appearance.
  • Ridiculing or mocking: Treating a coworker as inferior or making fun of them in front of others.
  • Belittling comments, even if they’re meant as “harmless” teasing: This can happen when a boss makes a comment about someone’s work, appearance, or personality to put them down.

Notice that these behaviors don’t have to be intentional or malicious. They can happen when someone is angry, frustrated, or stressed out. A hostile workplace is generally characterized, though, by a persistent lack of respect for an individual’s personal boundaries. 

Since it’s possible to have a hostile workplace without being consciously aware of it, it’s important to be aware of the signs and associated risks.

The Legal Implications of a Hostile Workplace

In order to rise to the level of legally recognizable workplace hostility, the Supreme Court has ruled that the level of harassment has to be “severe and pervasive.” SCOTUS ruled in Harris vs Forklift Systems Inc. that a single instance of harassment is not enough to qualify as a hostile work environment. Another important decision, Faragher vs. City of Boca Raton, ruled that simple offhand remarks or light teasing do not necessarily constitute a hostile workplace.

These decisions have important implications for businesses and employees alike. Employers probably can’t be held liable for every instance of harassment that occurs at work, though they should still take any complaint seriously, investigate it thoroughly, and take action if necessary. 

Employees who suffer harassment at work, meanwhile, should understand that they can’t simply walk away and expect the problem to go away. They need to take action, thoroughly documenting the incidents and establishing a pattern of harassment before taking action.

Protected Classes

It’s important to note that swearing, jokes, and even name-calling may not be ruled to be actionable harassment unless it’s not directed at a protected class. Legally protected classes include people who might be singled out because of their race, gender, religion, age, or disabilities. 

Hostility against a protected class can be ruled to be a form of harassment, though it’s not the only type. It can also be illegal to harass someone because of their association with a protected class. In these cases, the claim of harassment might be based on the fact that the other person belongs to a certain group, not because of anything they’ve done. 

For example, it would be illegal to harass someone because of their religion. It’s important that employees understand this distinction clearly because it can be difficult to figure out whether harassment is based on the behavior of employees or on the fact that they belong to a certain group. 

The law also protects employees from retaliation for reporting harassment or discrimination.

As the Supreme Court noted, protections against hostile workplaces are not meant to be civility codes. Although it’s unpleasant, not all forms of harassment are necessarily illegal. As a result, situations must be judged on a case-by-case basis to determine all the relevant facts and whether the behavior rises to a level that violates federal or state law.

Severe and Pervasive Harassment

In order to prove that a hostile workplace exists, the law requires that it be both severe and pervasive (ongoing).

The law defines severe as unwanted conduct that would cause a reasonable employee to feel extremely uncomfortable, embarrassed, or intimidated. This is true even if the conduct doesn’t affect a person’s physical well-being or damage their property. For example, being subjected to offensive language or jokes can be considered severe in some circumstances. Pervasive harassment means behavior that occurs over time and affects an employee’s ability to do his or her job. 

The law also considers whether the harassment is blatant or subtle, and whether it occurs in a physical location (in the office) or online. This is especially important in the era of workplace Zoom calls — things said in the virtual workplace can still be counted as harassment, even if they weren’t said face-to-face.

For employers, the consequences of hostile work environments can be devastating. They are responsible for creating and maintaining a safe and productive workplace for their employees. The idea that one employee should be able to harass another without repercussions is unacceptable in today’s workplace. If a court finds that an employer allowed a hostile work environment to fester, they could be held liable for any harm suffered by the victim.

The Crucial Role of Human Resources

Prevention is the key to avoiding hostile work environments and the liability that can come with them. This must begin with clearly defined policies that are rigorously maintained and enforced. Human resources professionals should be at the forefront of this effort, as they are often the first point of contact for employees who feel they are being harassed. They also serve as a resource for managers who may not know how to handle a situation or want advice on how to best protect their employees.

Workplace policies should be consistent with the law and should clearly define what constitutes harassment. This includes an explanation of what behaviors are not acceptable, such as threats or violence, as well as discrimination against protected groups. Policies should also outline steps employees can take if they feel they are being harassed by a coworker, supervisor, or manager.

Policy statements might include things like:

  • What behaviors constitute harassment
  • What type of action the organization will take if it is determined that harassment has occurred (i.e., possible disciplinary actions)
  • How to ensure that employees are not retaliated against for reporting harassment or discrimination
  • How to report harassment or discrimination.

Human resources teams can help take the burden off of employees by providing a clear and easy-to-use reporting system. This system can include telephone numbers or email addresses for different supervisors, as well as instructions on how to report harassment or discrimination through an online form.

Resourcing Edge is a company that offers a number of HR support tools that allow businesses to create a reporting system for harassment and discrimination. These include policies and guidelines for managing workplace investigations, as well as a system for receiving, filing, and investigating complaints.

A strong training program and employee handbook can help prevent the formation of hostile work environments. A well-thought-out training program will help employees understand their rights and responsibilities in the workplace, and an employee handbook can provide clear guidelines demonstrating how to behave at work.

Resourcing Edge: Ending Hostile Workplaces

A hostile workplace is something no business owner wants to deal with, but it’s a reality that they must confront. An open and honest assessment of the state of the workplace and the specific behaviors that are creating a hostile environment will help businesses make necessary changes. Getting help from a third party can also be a good first step.

Resourcing Edge offers a number of services for employers who want to improve their workplace culture, including conflict resolution and mediation services, employee exit interviews, training, and more. Those struggling to deal with a hostile workplace can rest assured: Resourcing Edge’s human capital solutions can help them find an exit strategy. 

Visit us and  fill out our contact form to learn more about our services and how we can help.

Jami Beckwith
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