A hostile work environment can have the ability to seep into every part of workplace culture. From our boss’ office to our inbox, from in-person to remote-work models, nowhere is necessarily safe once it takes hold. But have no fear.

If you’re researching this topic, that means you want to fix your hostile work environment. While workplace hostility can be hard to scrub out after it starts to spread, with the right approach (and a whole ‘lotta elbow grease) it isn’t impossible. So how can we determine which actions brush the surface of hostile work environment toxicity, and what is a full-blown problem? Read on to find out.

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What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is a workplace in which unwelcome or offensive behavior occurs that makes employees feel scared, intimidated, or uncomfortable. 

This may cause you to have some seriously jarring flashbacks to the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. (Is there anything scarier than a Chanel-clad, passive-aggressive Meryl Streep?) We think it’s safe to guess that most workplaces have had to deal with at least a single incident of hostility or harassment, though probably not over the color “cerulean.” No matter the reason (or color — hot pink, we’re looking at you) that caused this toxic action to occur, it only takes a few missteps for a healthy workplace culture to quickly spiral into becoming a hostile work environment.

What constitutes a hostile work environment?

In a hostile work environment, employees may experience:

  • Inappropriate sexual conduct
  • Harassment
  • Consistently aggressive remarks or attitude (whether passive or otherwise)
  • Physical violence
  • Victimization
  • Threats of punishment
  • Ridicule or bullying
  • Microaggressions

A single incident of one of these acts can make a work environment uncomfortable for at least one person. However, an onslaught of these hostile behaviors will definitely affect everyone, even those who are not directly involved, which in turn creates an unwanted, hostile “work environment.”

For example, if one person makes a derogatory remark, it will affect the people directly involved, and maybe be the cause of some interpersonal friction, too. If matters are dealt with quickly, the sparks can be stomped out before they create too much lasting harm. However, in a workplace where derogatory “jokes” have become the norm, especially when used by a high-ranking employee, hostility, fear, and contempt are certainly sure to fester.

It’s not just the signs of harassment that alert us to a hostile work environment. If you spend time with a team who has been in this situation for a while, even if it’s indirect, you’ll begin to notice a few telltale recurring actions pop up. 

Tell-tale signs you might have a hostile work environment

Employees in hostile work environments typically can experience:

  • Burnout
  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Fear due to job insecurity
  • Complaints of being under-appreciated and/or underpaid
  • Worry in regards to layoffs

Things that don’t help the above? A lack of resources available in the workplace for employee mental and physical wellbeing. As a result, you may even witness a large amount of absenteeism amidst your staff.

How to prove a hostile work environment in legal situations

Wait a minute, you may be thinking, I’ve received an HR complaint one of those hostile actions in my workplace! 

Yikes! That’s definitely something we have resources to help HR and Compliance leaders address. But do those hostile actions legally go beyond that? It depends, but if it’s an isolated incident, probably not.

Let’s look at what behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment. In order for legal action to typically be taken against a hostile work environment, a court will question:

  1. How often did specific or changeable hostile acts occur?
  1. Was the victim or victims targeted because of their protected status?
  1. Would a reasonable person act in this way or respond to the incriminatory action in this way?

For a workplace to be legally classified as a hostile work environment (as opposed to a toxic one), it must be one where harassment affects people or a person of a protected class, such as:

  • Race
  • Sexual identity
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Religion

Sexual harassment falls under this classification as well.

Examples of a hostile work environment

Let’s next consider a couple hostile work environment harassment examples that may or may not denote legal liability. That receptionist on the third floor who gives everyone who exits the elevator some serious side eye? Rude, but not breaking the law. 

Or how about the manager who approves time off first to her “favorites” (who are not a homogenous group of folks) before looking at the requests from the rest of the team? Definitely problematic! But technically not breaking the law.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that isolated incidents and petty slights, though annoying at best and harmful at worst, still technically do not overstep the law. 

Quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment

You may have heard the term “quid pro quo” (meaning “something for something”) pertaining to all kinds of exploitative, threatening, or bribery scenarios. However, in the workplace, quid pro quo harassment usually applies to negative sexual coercion, harassment, or intimidation.

Here’s where things get especially tricky (and icky): In order to legally establish quid pro quo harassment, it must be proven that an employee who refused an unwelcome advance was negatively impacted in tangible ways at their place of employment. 

  • This can look like Sofia being denied her slice of the year end bonus after she refused her boss’ request for dinner.
  • It can also look like Korey being passed over for a promotion once he refused his manager’s sexual invitation.

Unfortunately, if a coworker or supervisor only threatens to take negative action but doesn’t actually go through with it, the legality can get murky. However, intimidation and threats can potentially be a valid reason by the court’s standards for pressing legal action, but it all depends on the situation. 

How to fix a hostile work environment

When faced with a hostile work environment, there are steps to take to help fix it. After all, you don’t want your employees to quit over a bad workplace culture, and new recruiting efforts will become harder if this is not addressed. So let’s look at how to fix a hostile work environment:

Step 1. Know the difference between a hostile work environment and a toxic work environment.

We’ve written previously about how to fix hostile work environments, so we won’t repeat those steps here. But make sure you are crystal clear on what type of environment you are dealing with before moving on to next steps.

Step 2. Review your anti-harassment policies ASAP

Want to know if your workplace anti-harassment policies are doing their jobs? Ask your team how easy it was for them to register a grievance or complaint of harassment. If the inbox that is reserved for disputes has remained surprisingly empty while passive-aggressive banter has become your team’s language of choice, you should probably revisit the steps it takes for HR complaints to be filed. a complaint.

And if you’re in need of a sample anti-harassment policy, or would like to refresh yours, borrow ours!

Step 3. Create a speak-up culture

The last thing you want in a hostile work environment is for the situation to escalate. We know speaking up might be difficult, especially if it’s not already part of the culture at your workplace. But it’s important to create a “speak-up culture” from the ground up. Check out our 5 Steps to Building a Speak Up Culture post for more details.

For an additional resource, implement Bystander Intervention training to your employees. Empowering them with easy to remember resources, like the 5 D’s, is great fuel to get the spark going as you fix your workplace culture. Check out our snippet below:

5 D’s of Bystander Intervention, a section of Ethena’s Harassment Prevention course

Step 4. Make sure your team is securely suited up with corporate compliance training

Effective corporate compliance training does more than teach how to identify hostile behaviors. It also takes the guesswork out of what is, and most certainly is not, appropriate behavior for the workplace. Great Harassment Prevention training will do more than just clean up your coworker’s act. It will also provide learners with the skills needed to prevent issues before they even start.

And speaking of … 

Invest in a heavy duty cleaning solution like Ethena

At Ethena, we are committed to making corporate compliance training so good it sticks. In fact, ineffective harassment prevention training was the catalyst for why we were founded

Today, our modern and engaging approach to learning goes beyond check-the-box regulation requirements. Ethena’s Harassment Prevention training course inspires learners to foster healthy, inclusive, and squeaky clean workplaces.

*Infomercial voice* But why not take it a step further? Ethena’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion training helps learners understand, support and celebrate coworkers of many different identities and backgrounds. And with our Code of Conduct courses, you too can train your team to build a hostility free work environment! To us, that’s worth way more than any elbow grease you could muster on your own.

Ethena has now received over 1.2 million positive ratings from happy, supported learners! Request a sample of our Harassment Prevention training to see how our courses help fix hostile work environments from all corners of the world. Want to learn more? Let’s talk

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