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3 Ways to Recognize a Hostile Work Environment Before It’s Too Late

May 21, 2019

Bullying and harassment in the workplace have the potential to cause major damage to an otherwise successful organization.

It’s no joke just how dangerous a toxic culture can be to a business. A hostile work environment may cause you to inadvertently lose good employees, hurt your recruitment marketing efforts, and squash revenue and productivity. It's a major hit to your employer branding

A hostile work environment is colloquially used to describe a workplace that people do not feel comfortable being in, but there are also legal associations attached to the term. To better understand a hostile work environment, feel free to jump ahead to one of the following sections:

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is a workplace in which employees are facing discriminatory conditions that inhibits their ability to work. This term generally refers to unwelcome harassing behavior from coworkers, management, clients, vendors, or visitors aimed at an employee. This can also have a reverberating effect through a workplace when coworkers adjacent to the victim or victims see or hear the unwelcome behavior.

If you think your workplace may qualify as a hostile work environment, there are a few things you should look for.

Signs of a hostile work environment

It’s important for you to know the legal qualifications of a hostile work environment so that you can recognize what behavior is absolutely unacceptable and may need to be handled through legal means. Here’s what to look out for:

signs of a hostile work environment

1. Discrimination

The most telling sign of a hostile work environment is if there is outright discrimination occurring in the workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees who are discriminated against based on their gender, race, color, national origin and religion. Employees who have a disability, take medical leave, or use workers’ compensation are also covered under Title VII.

Discriminatory comments like these are often said casually or played off as a joke. Being discriminated against creates a hostile work environment for the victim and other employees, where they feel unsafe and disrespected by the harasser.

2. Pervasive

In a hostile work environment, actions that create the hostility are pervasive and long-lasting and not limited to one or two remarks. Often though, the continuous and comprehensive nature of a hostile work environment is what sets it apart from bullying.

3. Severe

In extreme situations, severity outranks longevity and one single event is enough to create a hostile work environment. The behavior of a person in the workplace must seriously disrupt and negatively affect the employees’ work.

Severity could also refer to the behavior interfering with career progress, by pushing someone to avoid the workplace, call in sick, or underperform from stress. Severe is subjective, making the situation difficult to qualify.

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How to deal with a hostile work environment

If any of these signs are apparent in your workplace, it’s important to remedy the situation as quickly as possible while ensuring that the situation does not worsen.

As a manager or HR professional, your first step should be to speak with the offending employee. There’s a chance that they don’t even realize they are contributing to a hostile work environment. Identify the problematic behavior and ask them to stop.

Make sure these conversations are documented in some form in order to protect yourself and the workplace should the victim decide to take legal action against the harasser.

A hostile work environment can worsen if it’s not handled swiftly and correctly. Encourage change in your organization by implementing company-wide harassment training and development policies and guidelines concerning behavior at work.

Silence helps no one

Letting a hostile work environment fester will lead to employees quitting, costly litigation, and a large hit to your employer brand among other harmful repercussions. Take a preventative approach in dealing with a hostile work environment, so that your employees never feel uncomfortable or unwelcome at work.

Have you recognized a hostile work environment throughout the interview process? Read this guide on how to decline a job offer politely and professionally.

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