A staggering 41% of women feel that they’ve been harassed at work.
I know, it’s an uncomfortable reality check, especially because 78% of accused harassers are men and 73% are in a senior position to the accuser. Hello, power dynamics.As a leadership and executive coach for women of color and allies, I unfortunately hear about instances of dealing with a hostile work environment. It’s a term that’s frequently thrown around, but not everyone understands what it means, how it’s defined legally, and what employers and employees can do to prevent it.
I want to discuss and clarify the key concepts and definitions related to hostile work environments, as well as navigating legal claims and providing examples. We’ll also be focusing on what leadership can do to prevent a hostile work environment and build an inclusive company culture.
Defining Hostile Work Environment
Let’s start with the basics. What is a hostile work environment, and how is it defined legally? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the United States, a hostile work environment discriminates against a protected class and is “created by unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.”
This means that behavior that is based on gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or genetics, national origin, or age can create a hostile work environment. It’s not just limited to sexual harassment, although that’s often what people think of when they hear the term.
To be considered a hostile work environment under the law, the behavior must be “severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” This means that annoyances and isolated incidents, while still unacceptable, may not rise to the level of a hostile work environment. So if you’re just dealing with an unfriendly colleague, you’ll have to find a way to resolve that on your own.
Whenever I’m talking about technical aspects of workplace culture like the legal definition of a hostile work environment, I find it’s most beneficial to provide examples of what these problems look like in real life.
Examples of Hostile Work Environment
Offensive behavior that can create a hostile work environment includes verbal or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, derogatory comments or jokes, unwelcome sexual advances, and displaying offensive material. It’s important to note that a hostile work environment can be created by a single person or a group of people, and it can be directed at an individual or a group. Creating a hostile work environment includes many behaviors that can take various shapes and forms.
What can this look like?
- A supervisor of a transgender employee recurrently and purposefully misgendering the employee, using incorrect pronouns, or referring to them by the wrong name
- Unwanted and persistent comments about physical appearance
- Being called any racial slur, even if it’s attempted to be passed off as a joke
- Prohibiting a transgender employee from dressing or presenting as their gender identity
- Threatening, intimidating, hostile behaviors such as physically blocking someone’s path
You can find real world cases of companies sued for a hostile work environment here.
The Process of Making a Hostile Work Environment Claim
Let’s talk about legal claims and the role of the EEOC.
Note: it’s important to understand that I am not a lawyer. I’m here to provide basic information and insight from my work as an executive coach, but in the event of a problem at work, please hire a lawyer to ensure your safety.
If you believe you’re working in a hostile environment, you can file a complaint with the EEOC, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination.
Legal claims that can be made for a hostile work environment include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
Dealing with this type of situation is scary on its own, and fear of retaliation is a top reason for why people delay making a claim. It’s important to note that each case is considered on a case-by-case basis, and not all behavior will qualify as the level needed for a claim. (For a quick reference of your rights, you can refer to this poster which should be posted somewhere in your place of work.)
I cannot stress enough the importance of documenting every instance of hostility while you are building your case or deciding whether or not to make a claim. Be sure to write down dates, times, names of people involved, and exactly what was said or done. The more detail and evidence you can provide, the better. And as soon as you possibly can, seek out the help of a professional and hire a lawyer.
If you file a complaint with the EEOC, the agency will investigate the claims and determine if there is sufficient evidence to support a legal claim. If there is, the EEOC will try to resolve the complaint through conciliation or mediation. If a resolution can’t be reached, the EEOC may file a lawsuit on behalf of the employee.
It can be an exhausting process to deal with legal proceedings, but holding employers accountable for the work environments they create is essential to your own well being as well as future employees of that company. Remember to keep your friends close, prioritize your self care, and spend time with loved ones while navigating this process.
Building an Inclusive Company Culture
It’s easy to imagine the devastating impact a hostile work environment can have on an individual’s mental health, physical well-being, and career. No one should have to endure this type of behavior in the workplace, and it’s up to leadership to create an environment where all employees feel safe and valued.
So, what can leadership do to prevent a hostile work environment and build an inclusive company culture? Here are a few strategies:
- Set clear policies and expectations.Develop a comprehensive anti-discrimination and harassment policy and communicate it to all employees. Make sure everyone understands what behaviors are unacceptable and the consequences for violating the policy.
- Provide regular training.Train all employees on what constitutes a hostile work environment and how to prevent it. Make sure managers and supervisors are trained on how to respond to complaints and support employees who are experiencing harassment or discrimination.
- Foster a culture of respect and inclusion.Make diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority in your company culture. Encourage open communication and create opportunities for employees to share their experiences and perspectives. To learn even more about holding space for conscious conversations and navigating conflict in the workplace, read my blog post Resolving Workplace Conflict.
- Take complaints seriously.When an employee reports harassment or discrimination, take it seriously and investigate the claims thoroughly. Provide support and resources to employees who are experiencing a hostile work environment.
- Hold people accountable.If an employee is found to have engaged in behavior that creates a hostile work environment, hold them accountable. This may involve disciplinary action, which may include termination if necessary.
Creating an inclusive and respectful work environment is not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. Research has shown that diverse teams are more innovative and productive, and companies with inclusive cultures have higher employee engagement and retention rates.
A hostile work environment is a serious issue that can have devastating consequences for individuals and organizations. It’s up to leadership to prevent a hostile work environment and build an inclusive company culture where all employees feel valued and respected. By setting clear policies and expectations, providing regular training, fostering a culture of respect and inclusion, taking complaints seriously, and holding people accountable, we can create workplaces where everyone can thrive.
If you are an executive leader looking to uplevel your leadership skills, my team and I can support you to lead with conscious conversations, create sustainable systems, and build teams that carry your legacy, while ensuring everyone has a sustainable life. Schedule a 30 minute leadership + executive review call with me to see if it’s a good fit to work together.
And remember, as an employee facing a hostile work environment, the best course of action to ensure your safety is to know your rights and to hire a lawyer as soon as possible.