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 About.com: “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.


Enjoy this article? You’ve got time for another! Check out these related articles:


Photo Credit: Shutterstock