In a perfect world, every workplace is a haven of productivity, collaboration, and growth. Unfortunately, the reality for many employees is starkly different — according to research, more than 1 in 5 (22%) battle toxic work conditions. Hostile work environments are a widespread issue seen across all industries, and they can have a devastating impact on employee well-being, morale, and business success. Understanding what constitutes a hostile work environment, recognizing its signs, and having effective solutions in place to address it are crucial steps towards creating healthier workplaces.

While workplace hostility can be hard to scrub out after it starts to spread, with the right approach (and a whole lot of elbow grease) anything’s possible. But how can we determine which actions brush the surface of hostile work environment toxicity, and what’s a full-blown problem? Below, we’ll dive into the depths of hostile work environments, explore their manifestations, and offer actionable tips for keeping this pervasive problem at bay.

Defining hostile work environments

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is more than just a stressful workplace. It refers to an environment where employees are subjected to pervasive harassment, discrimination, or other forms of mistreatment that create an intimidating, offensive, or hostile atmosphere. This mistreatment can be based on various factors, including race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, or nationality.

Anyone else getting jarring flashbacks from the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada? We’d argue that there’s nothing scarier than a Chanel-clad, passive-aggressive Meryl Streep.

We also think it’s safe to guess that most workplaces have had to deal with at least one incident of hostility or harassment, though probably not over the color cerulean. No matter the reason (or color) that triggered the toxic behavior, it only takes a few missteps for a healthy workplace culture to quickly spiral into a hostile one.

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 is bad enough to make the workplace uncomfortable for at least one person. But an onslaught of these kinds of behaviors will affect everyone — even those who aren’t directly involved. This unwanted hostility and tension is what ultimately creates toxic work environments.

For example: if Person A makes a derogatory remark about Person B, it will affect at least Person B, and likely create some interpersonal friction between Persons A and B. If matters are dealt with swiftly, the fire can be stomped out before it creates too much lasting harm. But in a workplace where derogatory “jokes” are normalized, especially when used by a high-ranking employee, hostility, fear, and contempt are 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 surefire recurring actions pop up. 

Recognizing signs of a hostile work environment

Employees in hostile work environments often report feeling burnt out, unhappy with their jobs, and under-appreciated (or underpaid). They also tend to frequently worry about layoffs or terminations.

Here are some other tell-tale signs of toxic workplace conditions:

  1. Discrimination and harassment: Employees are subjected to discriminatory remarks, offensive jokes, or unwelcome advances based on protected characteristics.
  2. Bullying and intimidation: There are persistent instances of bullying, verbal abuse, or threats that create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.
  3. Lack of support: Management fails to address employee concerns or complaints, fostering a culture of impunity for perpetrators.
  4. Unequal treatment: Certain individuals or groups receive preferential treatment while others are marginalized or unfairly targeted.
  5. High turnover: A “revolving door” of employees leaving the organization due to dissatisfaction or mistreatment.
  6. Poor communication: There are communication breakdowns, secrecy, and/or misinformation that contribute to a sense of distrust and uncertainty.
  7. Physical symptoms: Employees experience stress-related health issues such as insomnia, headaches, or GI problems due to workplace stressors.

How to prove a hostile work environment in legal situations

Okay, so you may be thinking: I received an HR complaint that involves one of these hostile actions in my workplace. What do I do next?!

The answer is: it depends. In order for legal action to typically be taken, a court will ask:

  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, which is different), it must be one where harassment affects people or a person of a protected class, such as race, sexual identity, age, gender, or religion.

Examples of hostile work environments

Now let’s consider a couple of 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. 

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

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that isolated incidents and petty slights, though annoying at best and harmful at worst, 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. But in the workplace, quid pro quo harassment typically applies to negative sexual coercion, harassment, or intimidation.

Here’s where things get tricky (and icky, if we’re being honest): 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 could look like:

  • Sofia being denied her year-end bonus after she refused her boss’s dinner invitation
  • Corey being passed over for a promotion after he refused his manager’s sexual advances

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. Still, intimidation and threats can potentially be a valid reason by the court’s standards for pressing legal action, but again — it all depends on the situation. 

How to fix a hostile work environment

Addressing hostile work environments requires a multifaceted approach that involves proactive measures, clear policies, and a commitment to creating a culture of respect and inclusion. After all, you don’t want your employees to quit over a bad workplace culture, and new recruiting efforts will become harder if this isn’t addressed. So let’s look at how to fix a hostile work environment:

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

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

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!

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:

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

Offer regular training sessions on harassment prevention topics such as unconscious bias, conflict resolution, and respectful workplace behavior. Equip employees and managers with the knowledge and skills necessary to identify and address hostile behaviors effectively.

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

Invest in a comprehensive compliance training solution like Ethena

At Ethena, we’re 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.