What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Every now and then I hear someone say something about possibly being the victim of a hostile work environment. Sometimes it’s said casually and occasionally the topic comes up when I’m chatting with HR colleagues. Now and again a student in one of my HR classes will bring up the topic of hostile work environment. It’s starting to become a catch phrase, said almost casually when someone is talking about his job or her boss or her work environment.

So let’s be clear: a hostile environment is not created when a supervisor does the job he or she was hired to do, namely supervise. Holding an employee accountable to the agreement made when hired—to do the job as outlined in the job description—does not create a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment is not a work environment that is just generally unpleasant. It’s not a work environment that does not bring joy. It’s not working in a job in an environment that doesn’t please you. It’s actually none of these. It’s also not an environment that annoys you, or one where you feel slighted in some way. Isolated incidents don’t count either. Being uncomfortable at work isn’t pleasant, but it’s also not hostile. Being uncomfortable in your job because of the behaviors of others does not make the environment hostile nor does your discomfort make that behavior illegal.

A hostile work environment is one that is intimidating, hostile and/or offensive, and the hostility being endured is a result of being a member of a protected class. A hostile work environment occurs when the behavior directed toward an employee is discriminatory and due to that employee’s membership in a protected class as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The hostile behavior has to be habitual and the employee has to have reason to believe that it will continue and that the continued hostility will affect the employee’s performance on the job.

The hostile behavior has to be considered hostile by reasonable people. This means that if you are offended, you’ll have to show that, generally speaking, others are, or would be, also offended.

So if you find yourself offended because your manager is holding you accountable to the job you were hired to do and you feel like you’re not being treated fairly, take an objective look at yourself and your job performance. Is your supervisor unreasonably holding you accountable and making your life miserable, treating you differently because you are a particular age or race or gender, or does your supervisor just want you to do your job?

Some people find it hard to be held accountable. Are you one of those people? Take a good look at your own behaviors and then decide whether or not your work environment fits the definition of a hostile work environment. If it does, you have an obligation to report it so an investigation can be conducted. If you’re not sure, ask someone you trust; human resources or a manager or supervisor who you are comfortable with. If it isn’t, it’s probably best to go back to work.


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