Find Jobs
Log In
Find Jobs
Log InSign Up
Post a Job
Blog>Guides>What Is a Hostile Work Environment? Everything You Need to Know

What Is a Hostile Work Environment? Everything You Need to Know

Article index


  • Definitions of a hostile work environment

  • Get familiar with the laws that protect employees from harassment and discrimination

  • Learn the behaviors that constitute a hostile work environment


Landing a job can be an exciting experience. After all your hard work getting a degree or specialized training, the application's stress, going through interviews, and more — you can now reap the rewards of your commitment.

Besides the financial security it guarantees, landing a career adds structure. Your life becomes purposeful, and you wake up happy to pursue your goals and make a difference every day.

Unfortunately, not all workplaces offer you a conducive environment to enjoy your new job. Your initial joy may be cut short upon realizing that you are in a toxic or hostile work environment. From petty slights to offensive jokes and threats of possible violence, hostile work environments can take various forms. These incidents are often not isolated.

The problem of a hostile work environment has become pervasive in American workplaces. A 2017 study found that one out of every five American workers finds their workplace hostile.

This article dives deeper into what constitutes a hostile work environment. Additionally, we'll look at the laws that protect you as an employee against these types of conditions and how to file a complaint. First, let's define a hostile work environment.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment can take various forms depending on the individual's situation. It can look like a boss who never seems satisfied with your work or co-workers who are outrightly mean or discriminatory, among other things. This work environment can feel like a battlefield that you have to navigate with caution.

Furthermore, your job might be overwhelming, especially when the management is unsupportive of proper work-life balance. As a result, the benefits of the job might be meager, contributing little to your growth and development while stifling your creativity. Therefore, a hostile work environment refers to a work environment that raises the employee's stress level and stifles their growth and advancement.

However, the definition of a hostile work environment becomes relatively rigid regarding the law. Legally, your work environment is hostile only when you experience discriminatory attitudes and behavior that affect your work.

EEOC Hostile Work Environment

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the government agency that enforces workplace equality and anti-discrimination laws in the United States. The EEOC has a standard it uses to define a hostile work environment. In line with this standard, a work environment is considered hostile if its conduct falls under the following four criteria.

  • Discriminatory. For conduct to be classified as contributing to a hostile work environment, it must target an aspect of the protected employee's condition. Only behaviors, comments, or suggestions that violate one’s protected characteristics count as discriminatory. These categories include your sex, sexual orientation, age, race, pregnancy, religion, disability, etc.

  • Pervasive and continuous. This implies that such conduct did not just happen once or twice or in an isolated incident. Instead, it persisted even after the aggrieved person had issued a warning or corrected the accused.

  • Unwelcome. If an employee does not take offense at a remark or gesture that would otherwise be discriminatory, it does not qualify as a hostile workplace.

  • Intense. In addition to the conditions above, the behavior still has to be sufficiently malicious to qualify as a hostile work environment. For example, conduct that causes physical discomfort, demographically derogatory slurs, etc., can be isolated.

Conducts done in retaliation that affect the aggrieved party's work conditions or ability to effectively dispense his or her work duties also contribute to a hostile work environment. Aside from these labor laws, state laws may also define hostile workplaces differently. For instance, in New York, the employee's work must be bad enough that the employee can no longer go to work before it qualifies as a hostile work environment.

Laws That Protect Employees

When it comes to the law, what constitutes a hostile work environment is for the most part a gray area. Only extreme cases of hostile work environment suits can pursue success in a judicial law court. Nevertheless, the law provides stipulations that protect different classes of employees from being harassed or discriminated against in a way that makes the work environment unconducive.

Some of these anti-discriminatory laws include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act incriminates employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. This law extends to discrimination in the workplace based on the above attributes that may impact employees' well-being.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This act protects people with disabilities from discrimination in social and public situations, including the work environment. ADA is a civil law that ensures people with disabilities are treated with the same fairness.

  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). This act prohibits employers from requesting your genetic information for employment action. When employees are discriminated against in the workplace due to their genetic information, they can seek redress in the law court.

  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). This federal law protects older employees (aged 40) from discrimination due to their age. Discrimination based on age, either during hiring, promotions, or execution of duty in the work environment, can make the workplace very uncomfortable for the target group.

Aside from these federal laws, state laws exist that slightly differ. Suppose you are unsure which law applies to you. In that case, you should consider getting legal advice from a law firm or hiring a lawyer, many of which offer free consultations.

What Behaviors Are Required for a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment can manifest through behaviors that adversely affect employees' comfort at work. Below we discuss some of the behaviors.

Sexual or Racial Harassment

Badgering and harassment in a work environment can cause intense stress and mental health conditions. It worsens when the harassment is sexually or racially motivated, as this contravenes the Civil Rights Act of 1974.

Racial or sexual harassment in the workplace can manifest in the following ways:

  • Sharing sexual or racist photos

  • Making offensive jokes, taunts, ridicule, etc.

  • Unprofessional touching

  • Unwanted comments about appearance

  • Pasting sexual posters on walls

  • Creating social media groups dedicated to ridiculing a coworker

Discrimination of Any Kind

Discrimination of any form based on a person's protected class undermines the person's rights and the dignity of human life. Unfair treatment or prejudiced consideration in the workplace sits at the heart of a hostile work environment. Protected classes include age, race, sex, disability, religion, etc.

Discrimination in the workplace can look like the following:

  • Limited promotional opportunities because you are above a certain age

  • Denial of training opportunities because of your sex

  • Lack of job consideration based on your disability for a job you are objectively qualified for

  • Isolation or opportunity denial as a result of your sexual or religious orientation

Consistent Aggressiveness

Pervasive aggressive behavior harms both the victim's mental and physical health. Therefore, this behavior can impact an employee's ability to carry out their duties. Consistent aggressiveness involves a pattern of threatening and hostile behavior.

Examples of constant hostility in the workplace include:

  • Physical violence

  • Verbal abuse and insults involving slurs

  • Threatening text messages or emails

  • Workplace bullying

  • Persistent yelling, swearing, and shouting

Ridiculing or Victimization

Singling out a worker or treating them with disdain is a hostile attitude. Ridiculing or victimizing people at work harms their mental health and affects their ability to work effectively. This falls under the jurisdiction of a hostile work environment. Although it can be challenging to identify ridicule or victimization at work, especially if it is isolated, it can quickly become evident through behaviors like:

  • Pointing fingers with hostility

  • Mocking appearance or demeanor

  • Passing insults in front of other employees or customers

  • Purposely assigning work outside of the employee's capabilities and duties

  • Sabotaging work opportunities

Punishment Threats

Some employers threaten their staff with punishments just to bully them into submission. Threats are also common in retaliation cases where the employee takes an unfavorable position against the employer or superiors, such as in the case of a whistleblower. Here, the employee is protected by law, and such threats of punishment can make the employer liable for prosecution.

Some other examples of punishment threats are:

  • Undeserved verbal or written rebuke or criticism

  • Threats of demotion or suspensions, or transfers

  • Threats of pay cuts or dismissal

What Is Unwelcome Conduct?

The workplace often functions as a community with constant communication and interactions. Everyone relies on each other to get things done. As a result, you will cultivate a few friendships, where you can joke and have some fun with coworkers.

However, it can be hostile when colleagues or superiors start making inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances or racist and otherwise discriminatory remarks.

Unwelcome conduct includes behaviors by your coworkers or superiors that you are not comfortable with, and that you regard as objectionable or hurtful. Often, this kind of conduct will be discriminatory. For example, you might be shown sexually provocative pictures, or someone may make a mockery of your skin color.

Any hostile behavior or conduct that negatively affects you is unwelcome conduct. These behaviors can bypass a hostile work environment's "pervasive" condition.

Who Can File a Hostile Work Environment Complaint?

Being continuously subjected to aggressive or unwelcome behavior like sexual harassment in your workplace leaves you feeling weak, powerless, and vulnerable.

A hostile workplace can be a harrowing experience for anyone. Most people choose to live with it instead of taking action because of the consequences. For instance, you might be scared of losing your employment status or possible retribution from your superiors. There is also the fear of isolation by the rest of the staff. Therefore, it is understandable to hesitate to file a hostile work environment complaint.

However, it helps to remember that you have different options to prevent further harassing behavior. The law also protects you from any possible retribution or retaliation for filing such a suit. So don't worry about losing your source of income or the job where you have contributed so much.

You can file a hostile work environment lawsuit against your company if you have been subjected to persistent discrimination or workplace harassment.

Otherwise, you can take the case to your employer through the human resource (HR) department by filing an HR complaint. When filing reports like this, you will be required to provide evidence of unwelcome conduct. Therefore, it is helpful to have witnesses, recordings, emails, and other documents that support your discrimination claim. Be thorough in your documentation and include dates, times, names, and witnesses.

Your case also needs to satisfy the condition that the behaviors and conduct you reported affect your work performance. So, suppose your work has a measurable performance standard like sales. In that case, you can use these statistics to show a decline in your performance. They can consult your superior to testify to the drop in your performance.

What Happens Next?

After filing an HR complaint, your company should spring to action. An active HR department with an ironclad policy and a solid system will react to your complaint in the following steps:

  • Accept and appreciate your complaint

  • Review and investigate your claims with the appropriate severity

  • Call a formal meeting that includes you and the accused party(s)

  • Examine the account of both parties objectively

  • Establish consequences and remove the aggressor if found guilty

  • In extreme cases, they can hand over the aggressor(s) to the police to take legal action

Unfortunately, things don't always go this smoothly with HR complaints. If you don't feel justified with the conclusion of the investigation or punishment, there is more you can do. You can appeal the process and call for a reinvestigation. HR departments are legally responsible for carrying out an objective investigation and acting on their reports.

If this does not work, you can file a complaint to the appropriate bodies. For example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles cases of hostile work environments. You can find details on how to contact EEOC on their website. The commission will conduct an unbiased investigation of your claims and establish consequences for the offender as the law stipulates.

What Can Employers Do to Prevent a Hostile Work Environment From Occurring?

Protecting an employee against a hostile work environment falls on the HR department. The company can take the following steps to prevent the work environment from becoming hostile.

Implement a Zero-Tolerance Policy

Any company that wants to protect the rights of its workers and increase their productivity has to clearly state that it stands against all unwelcome conduct and harassment. An excellent place to start is during the onboarding process for new employees. First, the company has to define what it considers harassment.

The policy has to be integrated into the company culture so that employees and customers alike can feel safe on its premises.

Then, the company must develop and take a clearly defined zero-tolerance policy against discrimination and sexual harassment. The company's policy must also be thoroughly communicated throughout the company across all departments and levels.

Train Your Employees

Regular education and training programs help keep employees informed and aware of the different and more subtle forms of harassment and discrimination. Harassment training held regularly lets your staff understand how important you take their safety.

Take Action

Follow-up is an essential aspect of any zero-tolerance policy. You should follow up with every report and investigate each thoroughly. The investigation should follow your policy to give it structure and a quickly followed system.

The company should also protect the reporting parties and keep them anonymous to encourage future reports.

Don’t Stay in a Hostile Work Environment, Let Joblist Help

A hostile work environment stifles employees' growth by impacting their mental and physical health. However, most employees caught in a hostile work environment feel like they cannot resign and seek better alternatives. The stress of finding a new job can be daunting.

With Joblist, you don't have to worry about finding a better job. Our system generates the best jobs based on your preference and experience. We believe that your next job search and subsequent application should be flexible and hassle-free. All you need to do is take the quiz, and we'll help you find the perfect workplace.

Mentioned In This Article

Related Articles