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Blog>Guides>10 Signs You Work in an Intimidating Work Environment

10 Signs You Work in an Intimidating Work Environment

Article index


  • What is workplace intimidation?

  • Can workplace bullying and intimidation be considered a hostile work environment?

  • Signs that you work in a hostile environment

  • What to do if you’re being intimidated at work


When we think of intimidation or bullying, the school environment comes to mind. However, did you know that intimidation and bullying also happen in the workplace? While bullies in the school environment are mostly fellow students, co-workers or employers take the forefront in the work environment.

When employees are repeatedly subject to different forms of unlawful harassment, threats, and humiliation, their physical and mental health is impacted along with productivity. Workplace intimidation or bullying is more common than we think. In a survey of over 1,000 Americans, 79% of working professionals reported having experienced bullying in the workplace.

An intimidating work environment can become hostile if not adequately addressed by management.

It’s important to be clear on what workplace intimidation is and how it can make the environment hostile. This article will look at 10 signs that signify you’re working in an intimidating environment.

What Is Workplace Intimidation?

Intimidation in the work environment and bullying go hand in hand. Workplace intimidation occurs when employers, coworkers, or subordinates intentionally harass, abuse, or direct any malicious act toward a worker or group of workers in the same organization.

The motive may vary. For instance, your colleagues might be jealous of your job performance or reputation and use intimidation tactics to undermine you. At other times, the motive may be more personal and cruel — for example, when the bully tries to exploit the victim’s vulnerability, especially if the victim has little or no social support.

Intimidation can take various forms, including yells, curses, insults, put-downs, the threat of violence, harassment, and more. It is the responsibility of every business owner and employee to identify and fight workplace intimidation.

Is Workplace Intimidation Considered a Hostile Work Environment?

Naturally, employees can sometimes disagree with each other or the employer. Although annoyance and petty slights can make anyone uncomfortable, they are not illegal. Furthermore, isolated incidents that are not pervasive do not make the workplace environment hostile.

For a workplace environment to be considered hostile, it must violate several aspects of the federal anti-discrimination law, incorporating crucial elements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that enforces employment laws bordering on workplace discrimination. According to the EEOC guidelines, a work environment is considered hostile if the conduct therein is:

  • Discriminatory. The conduct must be discriminatory and target a specific group’s protected characteristics such as age, race, religion, national origin, etc. Discriminatory conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964.

  • Pervasive. Isolated incidents can make an employee uncomfortable, but they can be resolved through effective management and supervision. Pervasive conduct that affects a reasonable person’s ability to perform their job duties constitutes a hostile work environment.

  • Unwelcome conduct. An employee may not take offense to perceived discriminatory and inappropriate behaviors. In cases where offense is not taken, the environment will not be deemed hostile.

  • Intense. Behaviors directed toward an employee that may cause physical and emotional pains (slurs, curses, epithets, etc.) and disrupt their work performance constitutes a hostile work environment. Intense behavior that directly results in adverse employment actions also counts.

Violators of the EEOC guidelines are subject to severe disciplinary measures. Nevertheless, the legality of workplace harassment is often complicated by insufficient federal laws that focus mainly on anti-discrimination. However, various local and state laws exist that offer broader protection against workplace harassment or bullying by bosses and co-workers alike.

10 Signs You Work in an Intimidating or Hostile Work Environment

While some conduct that constitutes a hostile work environment can be glaring, some can be subtle. We've detailed 10 signs that indicate a hostile or intimidating work environment below.

1. Physical Violence or Threats

Physical violence occurs when a company owner, manager, co-worker, client, or supervisor attacks or threatens to attack an employee with intent to harm or intimidate them. Work-related violence isn’t location-specific. While physical assault can happen on-site, you can get verbally abused or threatened in a remote setting. Violence in the workplace can manifest in the form of:

  • Threatening behavior. Throwing things, destroying property, or shaking fists.

  • Verbal or written threats. Any expression with an intent to cause harm.

  • Verbal abuse. Cursing, swearing, insults, or other derogatory languages.

  • Physical assaults. Shoving, hitting, kicking, slapping, or pushing.

Violence of any form or threats fly in the face of professional work ethic and are unacceptable. This kind of unsavory behavior can make the work environment hostile and unsafe for the employee to stay and carry out his or her job duties.

2. Screaming or Yelling

Although yelling, screaming, or shouting can be a natural way of expressing frustration for some, it is unacceptable in the workplace. When managers use screaming and yelling tactics to get work done, they cultivate a culture of fear and intimidation among employees.

Such a workplace will feel like a battleground where you need to do everything to survive. Yelling or screaming is not limited to managers or supervisors, as coworkers can also lash out at their colleagues.

3. Ridiculing or Insulting You in Front of Coworkers or Customers

Holding employees accountable for their actions is vital in maintaining a professional workplace. However, accountability doesn’t involve passing offensive jokes, public shaming, or passing ridiculous insults in front of coworkers or customers.

A workplace where the employer uses accountability as a disguise to insult workers is a hostile work environment. Repeated offensive jokes or pranks by colleagues that leave one feeling embarrassed and ridiculed also constitute a hostile work environment.

4. Hostile Physical Posturing

Don’t overlook aggressive body language. Most times, it indicates that danger is imminent. Let’s review some signs of aggression to watch out for in your workplace:

  • Squinting. People squint when they are struggling to see something, but they also do so when they are angry with another person.

  • Pursed lips. When people squeeze their lips together, it can indicate negative feelings and thoughts.

  • Finger-pointing. Whenever someone points their finger at another person, they are likely speaking about them in a combative way.

  • Space invasion. Invading your space without your permission is a telltale sign of an intimidating work environment.

5. Taking Credit for Your Work

It can be hurtful when someone takes credit for your work, especially when you put so much effort into getting the job done. This can happen in different ways:

  • You share an idea with your colleague, and they speak about it in a public meeting as if the idea were their own.

  • You put in your best effort in a presentation, and your team leader or other teammates take credit for it.

  • You land your company a big contract, and you’re not even recognized.

A workplace where your hard work comes with little recognition might indicate a hostile environment.

6. Deliberately Assigning Duties Outside Your Expertise

Some job descriptions can be misleading, and you might do more tasks than you signed up for, leading to exhaustion and frustration. What can be even more frustrating is if your superior or boss is deliberately assigning you duties outside your expertise.

Don’t get this wrong; additional projects might lead to greater exposure and pay off with a raise, promotion, or reward. However, it can be discomforting when your boss is deliberately dishing out more than you can take. Furthermore, your mental and physical health can be affected.

If you work in a company less concerned about your personal and career development, and what you receive instead is a heavy workload bordering on the impossible, you may want to consider changing your workplace.

7. Sabotaging Your Work or Setting You Up to Fail

Sabotage in the workplace is indicative of a hostile environment and can come in different forms. Mostly, saboteurs use emotional manipulation to control others around them. Falling prey to emotional manipulation can cause a lot of grief.

Aside from taking credit for your work, other ways someone can sabotage you at your place of work include:

  • They ask you to go through hurdles others don’t have to go through.

  • They tell lies to your boss or other colleagues at work to bring you down.

  • They intentionally leave you out of important meetings.

  • They set you up to fail.

8. Raising the Bar for Success or Setting Up Different Standards for the Targeted Employee

Raising the bar for success can sometimes be beneficial to an employee. For instance, it can help them correct deficiencies, level up with higher-performing peers, set higher goals than usual, and actualize them. Sometimes the employer can even sponsor the employees for professional training.

However, when employers raise different standards for a targeted employee to frustrate them regardless of their hard work and dedication — that’s when it becomes an intimidating workplace. This behavior borders on hostility and can be an unfair strategy for preventing the employee from growing within the company. When this happens, the employee’s work performance, ego, and self-esteem are minimalized.

9. Interfering With Your Ability to Work

Occasional interruption at work is inevitable. You can be distracted by your colleague or boss for a few minutes while working or trying to meet a deadline and still carry on with your work.

However, when your ability to function optimally or your career progress is consistently and deliberately interfered with by your boss, manager, or colleagues, you’re likely working in a hostile environment.

10. Finding Unreasonable Faults With Your Work

Suppose you work where the employer constantly belittles your work, calls you out for every mistake, or finds unreasonable faults without offering feedback to improve — or even recognizing improvements. In that case, you're likely working in a hostile work environment.

What to Do If You’re in an Intimidating Work Environment

When you fall victim to workplace bullying or intimidation, you need to take proactive action immediately so it doesn't continue. How do you go about this? Ask the bully to stop and state clear boundaries. If this fails, start documenting (videos, chats, written records, etc.) the incidents. Make sure to include the exact date, the nature of the harassment, the persons involved, and its impact on your performance metrics.

Once you have the available evidence, report the inappropriate behavior(s) to your human resource department. Most companies have workplace harassment policies in place to tackle such situations. However, if your employer doesn't do anything, you can consult an attorney and file a hostile work environment claim. However, hostile work environment cases are difficult to crack due to limited federal law, so be sure to have as much evidence as possible.

With proper documentation, you are more likely to win a workplace harassment case, especially if it violates aspects of an individual's protected characteristics: e.g., race, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. In addition, many state laws exist that would back your claim, provided it meets the requirements for a hostile work environment in such a state.

Find the Right Career With Joblist

An intimidating work environment can be detrimental to employees' overall well-being, impacting their ability to perform optimally. However, most workers in an intimidating work environment find it hard to take meaningful action or even quit due to job insecurity or uncertainty in the labor market. That's where Joblist comes in.

Our system matches you to relevant low-stress jobs based on your selected preferences. We believe that your job search and subsequent application should be flexible and hassle-free. The idea is to provide you with an efficient avenue to land your next job immediately. All you need to do is take the quiz and watch us connect you to employers that care about your well-being.

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