Hostile Work Environment

How To Handle A Hostile Work Environment


Sometimes terminology is used in our culture that gets adopted and used, but it isn’t being used correctly. “Hostile Work Environment” is one of those terms you hear, but it may or may not be true to the legal definition.

That’s right, when it comes to this term; we have laws about hostile work environments and with the law comes a legal definition. It’s good to know the difference, because depending on what you are really talking about, your potential actions could be very different.

To quote “A hostile work environment is created by a boss or co-worker whose actions, communication, or behavior makes doing your job impossible. This means that the behavior altered the terms, conditions, and/or reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment… and must be discriminatory in nature. (Discriminatory would be about age, religion, gender, or race.) The behavior must last over time and must be severe.”

As you can see this is a very specific set of behaviors that protect our right to work. There can be legal ramifications because someone has made working and prospering at work impossible, if this issue is not handled properly by the employer.

Since we are clear about the true, legal meaning of “Hostile Work Environment,” let’s look at what’s taking place when your work situation may or may not be aligned to this technical term, but it’s bad nonetheless. What can you do in either situation?

How To Handle A Hostile Work Environment

Know the proper way to escalate an issue. You don’t want to go from your office to the local Bureau of Labor and Industry to talk to a lawyer. No matter which situation you are in, you are expected to work from the bottom up. Your steps should be:

1. Address The Issue Directly With The Offender

Difficult for many people, but necessary, is to adequately communicate what the issue is and to give a very specific example. You don’t want to use absolutes like “you always talk vulgar to me” when that isn’t actually true, because that person may be vulgar frequently, but not ‘always.’ Consider: “When you spoke to me just now, that was vulgar and inappropriate. You do not have my permission to continue.”

2. If The Issue Continues

Again, difficult for some people, but you need to repeat your previous message and then let them know you will be escalating it to both management and HR. By this point, you should be documenting both your conversations and comments made to you by the offender. You may need this type of detailed information when you take the issue up the food chain.

3. Take It To Management And Human Resources (HR)

Not all companies have an HR, but if they do, you need to cover your bases and ensure they are in the loop. When you take your issue to your manager, you will be much more effective if you can keep calm and professional. An emotional scene won’t help make your case despite how you might feel about it. You need to be prepared to give specific examples.

You also need to be prepared for management to speak to the offender, making the previous step important. You must hold your management accountable for correcting the situation. This doesn’t mean you insisting on this person being fired, but it is reasonable to expect that they will take whatever action they think will curb the inappropriate behavior. You should expect, and ask for a follow up, to minimally hear back that they did take action.  You don’t need a full account of what was said and done, as that is confidential.

4. If It Continues…

Again, you need to follow the previous steps and waste no time informing your management and HR. You are still looking for these people to take action.

5. And If It Still Continues…

At this point, you may be out of options. If the issue does follow the definition of a hostile work environment, you may have grounds for a legal action. If it is simply someone who does annoying things, badgers your work or makes rude remarks, your only two options are:

  • Take the issue to a higher management level.
  • Leave. While it might seem unfair that you would have to be the one to leave, all too many people tend to be weenies when dealing with difficult personnel issues.You can either find a way to tolerate it, be miserable or leave.

Hopefully, you will never have to face this type of situation but if you do, learn the right way, the professional way of addressing this kind of issue. It will be more effective in the long run for everyone involved.

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Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Dorothy Tannahill-Moran

Dorothy Tannahill-Moran, founder of New Chapter New Life, is a career coach, speaker and author. Download her e-workbook called, Should I Stay or Should I Go?


  1. My heart is hurting as well as my head right now as this is another day I had to leave work because of sever headaches caused by this employer. I have a phobia for dogs and there is a big brown dog at my place of employment. The dog do not have a collar, is never on a leash and barks all the time. It walks around the office all in the employee lunch room licking off of the water fountain cooler. I did not know of the dog when I first started working there. It caught me by surprise when I had to jump on the table when the dog entered my office. I informed my supervisor and her supervisor of my fear of dogs and no one did anything. She just told me I would have to call and let her know when I was coming in so they can take the dog out. On another occasion the dog entered the office and one of the managers blocked it off in a room until I left. As I ran down the stairs crying I ran into the human resource manager and explain to her as best I could what had happen. I was to hysterical and scared to stay. She then called up stairs and someone took the dog out. I thought it was over until weeks later I was going to the bathroom and theirs the dog again. I left and went home and typed up a letter to the Director of Marketing. The next day I met with the human resource manager, the manager of telemarketing and the VP of marketing. I was told that I would not have to worry about the dog that I would never see the dog again. On March 14, 2014 I was on my way in the building and the dog was coming down the stairs so I had to run back out to my car until the dog left. The next day the same thing. Now today I called first and I was asked to sit outside and wait a couple of minutes until the dog leave. I was out side for 35 minutes. My supervisor them called me and said OK you can come in side now the dog is gone. When I went in I was so upset I went to her and asked her was they going to pay me for sitting in my car and she said she had nothing to do with that. I went to my desk and cried because I was so upset. Then she comes over to me and said the human resource manager informed her that they would put the dog in the executive part of the building when I come into work. This is by the bathroom and the employee lunch room… My head started hurting I started crying again I was shaking and I could not take so I got up and left. Are they trying to get me to quit…

    • Have you ever considered not acting like a scum bag entitlement baby looking for a hand out??????? It’s a dog not a T-REX! Pet the dumb thing and get to work. Feel blessed to have a job! If you don’t like it, start your own business where there aren’t dogs.

  2. Sometimes it is management which creates the hostile environment, aided and abetted by the upper echelons. In such a
    case you have no choice but to leave.

  3. Well I have been with this fortune 500 co since October I am an Area Manager when I was hired I was promised that the larger my area grew I would soon become a DIstrict Manager, I was since told that they needed to analyz my performance further as an AM before consideration could be made all due to the fact that I stood up for my rights and asked them to give me the tools I needed to do my job. I get berated by a 30yr VP in the Company often and everyone is scared of her so even my boss won’t speak up …. It is very sad what we put up with to take care of our family’s …. When all we are really doing is bringing all that stress home to them. I have also noticed that people with the I don’t care attitude tend to get much further faster !!! As I said sad !

  4. I don’t understand why I have to take the verbal abuse/harassment. I have complained to the owner of the restaurant & nothing gets done. Why should I have to leave as a way to make it stop? This doesn’t make sense! I have been a good responsible employee for 11 years and I have to hear discriminatory remarks, be humiliated in front of my fellow workers, and hear his inappropriate sexual comments? And I need to leave? Where are my rights?

  5. Sadly, it has come to light how the head chef at Pane E Vino in Huntsville, AL displays such outrageous and totally unprofessional behavior by cursing at the employees even in front of others. This is totally unacceptable and undermines trust and credibility. It should be alerted to others of such behavior and karma should be play out.

  6. My Boyfriend is actually being harassed by an HR rep (female) at work and his boss is fully aware of it and has not reported to upper management. My boyfriend has now been stalked by this woman and has tried to ruin our relationship because of it. She found out about me and she has gone all Glenn Close on us. But today after 8 months working there, he has resigned. Nothing was fixed, reported or anything. He does NOT have a job lined up and may not be able to collect because it’s his choice to leave, but I told him he should be able to get compensated because his boss was aware of the hostile environment including an HR rep and never reported it. Both he and the HR rep should be fired and my boyfriend should get compensated.

  7. Its seems that a lot of the gender hostility directed at women is being directed almost entirely at white women. I’ve noticed that unjustified or unwarranted hostility toward women seems to be tolerated by employers provided the recipient of it is light skinned and female. And I rarely, rarely see men dumping such disrespect on men, period. Guys are more respectful to each other, I’ve found. Being a light skinned woman in a workplace, in 2013, is a stressful experience. I don’t know who treats women with more hostility in the workplace though- men or women.

  8. I have worked for my company for going on 20 years only 2 years without being subjected to terrible treatment. I am a Vice President and all the men on the board (of which I am a part) make at least 30% more than I do and I am equal in longevity I have more responsibilities and travel more than anyone. Each of the men have been provided a care and health insurance and a 4-5% bonus and I get 1%. I one of two women and we are each treated in the same manner as far as pay and benefits. One of the VPs has made it very uncomfortable to do my job. I have been told that he just doesn’t like me. When I asked why I was told by the President of the company it was because he cannot tolerate strong women. My only advice was to stand up to him and show that I am the bigger person. The treatment was so horrible that at one one I had a breakdown and was hospitalized for a week. I tried to keep it to myself and my boss was supportive but this guy announced in front of an entire group of our employees from the first that I was in the hospital and in today’s day and age how could anyone be hospitalized of a week and asked me for what in front of everyone. I had no idea what to say so he continued to berate me after I said simple for tests. I am fed up and I am thinking of constructive discharge and suing. I am the VP of HR so go fignure.

    • Bless your heart and sorry to hear such. I admire how you are VP of HR and this VP who has acted out inhumanely like this is total trash. Seriously I feel the no.1 thing anywhere is not have any a-holes of any kind anywhere and no matter what level we are at that we shouldn’t evee have to work with someone even if they are the CEO bc of the unacceptable thing they do. It is the worst injustice how people must develop skills and do their best and still hace unacceptable, rotten people at the top like you are dealing with. Wondering how I can always go high career wise and never deal with such toxic one-sided people who cannot be changed.

  9. I don’t understand how HR/Management can tell you day after day that you are the lowest paid employee they have so it is more cost effective for me to do everything others don’t want to. I was hired as accounts payable but see myself doing everything but that. They ask me on a daily basis if I want to quit. They told me that it will be miserable for me there unless I do because they don’t fire people cause they don’t pay unemployment. I am just suppose to suck it up or be miserable? Really? Just doesn’t seem right.

  10. Hi, at work I always see my GM and my co worker talk so close to each other(she’s his favorite employee) , and my co worker holds the GM’s arm when they talk , that makes me feel uncomfortable all the time , I know it’s not my business , but this is work place !!! Is that a type of harrasment ?

  11. The advice in this article is all well and good; but when the offender(s) ARE the management, then… your options become, as the article notes, leave, suck it up, or be miserable.

  12. I work for a small cleaning company with no HR. The owner infuriated the contact at my account two weeks ago and I have been paying for it since. Now, I get ongoing criticism after having no complaints since I started there last summer. I get yelled at by the co-owner as if he thinks he’s my father, and with three of the company’s personnel close by. And now I find that this is not considered a hostile work environment. Coulda fooled me. Daily I’m staggered by what these people don’t know, but I’m the one who can’t do anything right? Well, I was looking when I found this job…

  13. Good information….if your HR department cares about their employees. I had a client be unprofessional and disrectful toward me by yelling at me and HR informed me the client was their largest.

    In the end, the client sent an email to HR noting I was uncooperative and I was laid off. My boss was removed from the project 1 week later. It seems, anyone who crossed the client was removed from the project. And this is a very large Oil/Gas company!

    I have no idea how people can get away with this. I was brought up to be professional, unlike these men who think they can get what they by bullying people around.

    What is this world coming to?

    • This is 2013 and we as employees are still having to fight not only for our rights as employees but civil rights as well.

      • Can’t agree more. If you’re a person who prides yourself in respecting people and working with intergiry in today’s world you’re a misfit. I was laid off after I and another women both reported by boss for harrassment and discrimination. HR acknowledged they had a probelm with my boss on numerous occassions and asked me to continue reporting her. But in the end my coworker asked to be laid off ( the abuse was making her physcially ill) and I four months later was let go. I was a high performer/salaried professiona and it does not mattter. I’ve learned trust no one and say nothing to your employer regardless on the issue unless it’s on going sexual harrassment. Nothing will change unless state or EEOC laws change. I’d like to see laws change to state that HR rep and Offender will be fired if EEOC finds they supported CIvil Rights abuse. This would minimize corporate abuse of employees Best is to look for another job

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