We have all heard the term “hostile work environment”, but do you know what it means? Unless you are an attorney, you may not quite understand everything that constitutes a hostile environment under the law. The problem is that many people need to learn what this means and why it matters to you as an employee. A hostile work environment creates a liability on the employer’s part for employee lawsuits, harassment claims, and other legal issues. On top of these serious problems, it can also lead to lower productivity, a high turnover rate, and very unhappy employees. Let’s take a look at what makes an environment hostile and what can be done about it.
To begin with, let’s go through some of the areas that do not make up a hostile work environment. Most people think that a hostile environment includes things like a rude coworker, a mean supervisor, or a single incident. However, these areas do not make a work environment hostile. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, lists a hostile work environment as the following:
Involving “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information”; or
It occurs when “enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment” or the conduct creates a workplace environment “that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
Now that you have read what the EEOC says defines a hostile work environment, let’s take a look at what that actually means to you as an employee.
Here are some general examples of offensive conduct in the workplace:
- Offensive jokes – including racial or sexual jokes,
- Name calling – including racial slurs, epithets, and other offensive names,
- Physical threats or assaults based on race, color, sex, etc,
- Intimidation because of race, color, sex, etc,
- Ridicule or mocking of any person in the workplace based on race, sex, color, etc,
- Insults and put downs based on color, race, sex, etc,
- Offensive pictures and objects based on sex, race, color, etc.
All of these items constitute a hostile work environment and can be on the part of a coworker, supervisor, agents of the employer, or even non-employees, such as a vendor or customer. The conduct may not always be offensive to the employee or person that it is directed towards, but it may be offensive to the people or employees around that observe the actions.
The very best way to ensure that you are not contributing to a hostile work environment is to take an active role in preventing any of these areas on your part as an employee. If you have concerns or feel unsafe or offended in any way, go through the proper channels at your workplace to report them to a supervisor and document any issues, threats, problems, or other offensive behavior when it happens.