Defining a Hostile Environment in the Workplace

Not all instances of harassment in the workplace are going to be the same. There are going to be differences amongst victims, amongst harassers, amongst the harmful actions taken, and the motivations behind those actions. As a result, there are several different types of harassment that can occur in a professional working environment. Specific markers and actions can identify the type, although there are noticeable similarities throughout that all of the forms share.

This article will look at what occurs with hostile environments and the specific markers you can look for. Additional topics will include its prevalence, the circumstances that cause it to occur, and what can be done to prevent it from developing. Information regarding the legalities surrounding hostile environments, including how it is defined under state and federal law, will also be included.

  By Definition

A hostile environment can be a standalone form of workplace harassment, or it can be the precursor or byproduct of other types. Behavior that causes intentional discomfort, like harassment, impacts the atmosphere of the workplace and turns it into a hostile environment.1 This usually means that things have gone beyond co-workers not getting along or general animosity, but outright intimidation, abuse, and general hostility on a large scale. You can't say that your workplace is a hostile environment just because you are unhappy with your job-it's need to be more than that. There may be multiple instances and types of harassment occurring in the workplace that are generating the hostile environment. When a workplace develops a hostile environment, it's quite possible that harassing conduct has even become normalized or accepted as an everyday occurrence.

Legally, hostile environments fall under the same legal codes as all other types of harassment. For it to qualify, any offensive behavior or conduct needs to be severe enough to impact the working conditions of the victim(s).2 This means looking at all of the factors present and identifying the full extent of their impact. The bigger the case, the more there is to analyze in order to figure out if it meets the necessary requirements. Unfortunately, that can be a bit difficult to prove as there isn't a clear-cut test to determine if an environment is hostile or not. This further can make it hard for legal action to be taken, and sometimes for senior administrators in a workplace to take any allegations seriously without their own firsthand experience of events. Often, for any action to be taken on a legal level, things will often need to go to an extreme for them to be severe enough for clear identification. Even then, there may need to be a lot of work to rule out other factors and to further clarify the circumstances of the situation.

  Specific Identifying Markers 

As with workplace harassment in general, there are identifying markers that can help determine if a hostile environment is present. Since hostile environments are often cases where harassment is widespread, it's a bit harder to pinpoint specific markers that differentiate it from other types. In most cases, you will need to look at the responses towards the behavior and conduct rather than the actions themselves. As mentioned before, harassment in hostile environments may come across as normalized behavior. Things may still be of a discriminatory or derogatory nature, be unwelcomed by the person it is directed towards, and may still impact the victim's work abilities, but it won't necessarily be seen as something out of place or abnormal.

In some instances, the harassment may have leeched into the management practices of the workplace. This often depends on who the source of the harassment is in the first place (e.g. supervisors, managers, administrators, etc.) and whether the employers and administration of the business are aware of it. Harassment coming from employers and business owners, or just those who are high up in the administrative echelon, in particular can be both a source and a marker of a hostile work environment. Unfortunately, most employers or supervisors are going to be unlikely to admit that they are being hostile towards employees or that they were aware of any hostile or harassing conduct within the business.3 Their response and treatment-possibly even their encouragement-of harassing behavior may be the biggest identifying marker of them all in a hostile environment. Any response from an employer or senior employee should be measured based on how a reasonable person or how anyone in general would respond to such information. For example, downplaying or brushing things off as a non-issue, despite being informed of the circumstances, should be treated as a red flag for a hostile working environment.

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  •          You're Fired!-In a lot of hostile environments, complaining about harassment can get you fired and can act as a confirmation of a hostile work environment. The loose legal definition specifically regarding hostile environments and workplace bullying makes it very easy for that to happen.4 The reasoning given for terminating employment in these cases are often very weak ("You're not a team player", or something similar) and may be rooted in harassment and discrimination themselves. This may be especially true when the members of the workplace's administration are the source of the harassment and the perpetrators of the hostile environment. The lack of legal protections present for employees who do complain or otherwise talk about harassment and harassing behavior in their workplace means that it is unfortunately very common. The only place where there are legal protections or repercussions for this behavior at this time is Tennessee, which passed a law in 2014; 28 other states have attempted to pass similar legislation over the years, but without Tennessee's success.5

    The effects themselves of a hostile environment may serve as identifiers to some degree. By their very nature as a type of workplace harassment, hostile environments are going to have a lot of the same effects that have already been discussed. Victims may be stressed out, their work performance and quality may worsen, and there may be attendance issues present, just to name a few. However, those effects quite possibly are going to be on a much wider scale and will undoubtedly affect bystanders who happen to be within that environment. That can include co-workers who are not being harassed, those from other departments, and customers or clients-basically anyone who interacts with those within the hostile environment, for whatever amount of time. Depending on how long things have been going on or if things have become a normalized part of the work environment, those who are a part of the hostile environment may be desensitized towards the harassment. More subtle or minor harassment conduct, like inappropriate comments or touching, might not register as such with those in the hostile environment who are regularly exposed to it verses someone who isn't.


  • Hostile environments are not always the primary focus of studies and surveys on workplace harassment-if they are even discussed as a separate topic in that research. Normally, the prevalence of hostile environments is measured as an outcome of other forms of harassment and workplace toxicity, or in relation to workplace bullying:

  •          Workplace Bullying-Similar to workplace harassment and often a part of it, workplace bullying is defined as repetitive mistreatment.6 It can be very similar to the bullying that occurs when you're a child; in some sense, a workplace bully is the schoolyard bully, but all grown-up. Like with harassment, there can be one person who is inflicting the abuse and a victim who is being abused.

    What is being reflecting in most of the data is that workplace bullying and hostile work environments are increasing in occurrence.7 This is due to a variety of factors-the economy, clashing personalities, excessive workloads, and so on-but it could also simply be that these bullies who are creating hostile environments are just jerks who are going unchecked. Statistically speaking, the bullies in question are divided by gender with 69% being male perpetrators and 31% being female.8 The numbers for the gender of targets, however, was reversed: 60% were female and 40% were male. The vast majority of those perpetrators, regardless of gender, were of higher ranking than their victims (40.1% single perpetrator, 8.1% multiple).9 That suggests that most instances of hostile work environments are perpetuated by management, rather than the regular workers.

    Other studies have found similar results, even when researchers have used different rounds of questioning or focus in their efforts. Rates of simple rudeness in the workplace-which can act as the precursor for hostility and harassment-and other "uncivil" behavior are equally increasing; a Harvard study done over the course of 14 years found 98% of those surveyed experienced rude behavior, with half experiencing it weekly as of 2011.10 The study also found that many of the effects of that rudeness and uncivility were largely similar to what would be found in a hostile work environment. Noticeably, stress levels increased, there was an impact on work quality, interactions between offender and offended were tense or actively reduced, and the effects frequently spread throughout the department rather than just those directly involved.

      How Does It Happen?

    When hostile environments develop, it's usually because there are certain factors present. Many studies have found that the existing environment of the workplace before it became hostile or toxic play a rather significant role in their development. The people who turn a work environment hostile often have narcissistic tendencies or are overconfident, which ends up being fostered into something that can serve as a catalyst for harassment and toxic behavior.11 Some of the traits that such a person exhibits can actually help them succeed in a professional setting and lead them to be rewarded by their seniors who are not truly aware of their toxic behavior. In turn, their ego is boosted with every bit of praise and spreads more the farther they move up in the hierarchy.

    Other theories as to why hostile environments develop involve working conditions and workloads, things outside of work, existing prejudices, and employee relationships. A combination of any of these can cause stress levels to rise and prompt a healthy environment to sour. Add in a heaping dosage of time-which is a necessary requirement laid out in the few legal requirements12-and a hostile environment can develop with ease. It can even become self-sustaining if nothing is done to reduce or improve the behavior, and if it is regularly added to by those in the environment.

      Is It Preventable?

    Preventing hostile work environments in particular requires that you have some idea of what is going on in the workplace. It's more effective to curb the effects from something if it is caught early on rather than once it has established a good momentum. Since hostile environments can start off subtly in some cases, it can be difficult task if you're not paying attention. For hostile environments, awareness is going to be the key to preventing their development. If you're aware of an issue or the potential for an issue, then you have the option to take action against it.

    How you develop an awareness of things in the workplace is going to depend on your perspective and interpretation of what is already present. Someone who may be antagonistic and a toxic worker who can cause a hostile environment may not seem that way to everyone, or at least not at first. Existing policies regarding harassment-which should act as safeguards against hostile environments-may not be very effective or clear from the perspective of the employees who need to follow them.13 Look at things that have the potential to foster harassing and hostile behaviors. Can you remove them? Modify or reduce them? Is there something new that can be introduced to remedy the situation early? You want to curb hostile environments before they happen, so you really need to think about what needs to be done.