What Is A Hostile Work Environment?

What Is A Hostile Work Environment?


It’s no secret that the workplace can be hostile. One-fifth of all American workers say they have experienced some form of hostility in the workplace. This can include anything from verbal abuse to sexual harassment.

And while hostile workplaces can take many forms, they all have one thing in common – they are toxic and damaging to the employees and the company. So what constitutes a hostile work environment, and what can you do about it?

The Work Environment

A work environment is a place where people interact with each other to get work done. It can be an office, a factory, a store, or any other type of space. And while most work environments are positive and productive, some can be pretty hostile. Your workplace is a second home where you and your co-workers spend most of your time. It should be a place that is comfortable, safe, and free from any hostile behavior.

What Is A Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a workplace where an employee is subjected to unwelcome conduct that is either severe or pervasive. In other words, it’s a workplace where employees feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or even threatened due to their race, gender, religion, age, national origin, disability, genetic information (including family medical history), or other protected characteristics.

This conduct can be physical, verbal, or nonverbal. If the behavior is severe, it means that it is so bad that it interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job. If the behavior is pervasive, it means that it happens often or constantly. Hostile work environments are often the result of a toxic culture that tolerates or even encourages this type of behavior.

Some Hostile Work Environment Examples Include

  • Making derogatory comments about an employee’s race, religion, gender, or national origin
  • Displaying offensive pictures or symbols
  • Toxic workplace culture
  • Making sexual comments or advances
  • Making threats or hostile gestures
  • Physically assaulting an employee

Hostile work environments can be created by co-workers, supervisors, or even customers or clients. And while hostile work environments are often thought of as physical (e.g., shouting, fighting, or intimidation), they can also be psychological (e.g., constant belittling or criticism).

A recent study found that nearly 20% of American workers have been bullied at some point in their careers. And the Workplace Bullying Institute tells us that 30% of adult Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work. These statistics are alarming and indicate that this is a serious problem in the United States.

Signs Of A Hostile Work Environment

A Sad looking Black man is working on desk and there are two colleagues are gossiping at background behind of him


Many different signs can indicate a hostile workplace. Some common signs include:

  • Employees feel anxious, scared, or stressed when they are at work
  • Employees feel like they need to watch their back or be on guard
  • Employees feeling belittled, humiliated, or disregarded
  • Employees feel that their work is constantly criticized
  • Employees being the target of gossip or rumormongering
  • Employees being isolated from others at work
  • Employees being given impossible tasks or unrealistic deadlines
  • Employees feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed
  • Increased absenteeism or turnover due to job dissatisfaction
  • Decreased productivity
  • Decreased morale
  • Employees feeling unsafe or threatened
  • Employees being the target of physical violence

If you are experiencing any of these signs, taking action is crucial. A hostile or toxic work environment can severely impact your physical and mental health, as well as your job performance. It can also lead to increased absenteeism, turnover, and decreased productivity.

What Results In A Hostile Work Environment?

Furious businessman shout at female employee working in shared office, mad male boss scream at guilty intern, blaming for mistake, CEO accuse woman worker in company failure or bad results


Many different factors can contribute to a hostile work environment. Some common causes include:

Discriminatory Practices

Hostile work environments are often the result of discriminatory practices, such as racial discrimination, age discrimination, or gender discrimination.

A Lack Of Diversity

Hostile work environments are often the result of a lack of diversity in the workplace. This can make employees feel like they don’t belong or are not valued.

Poor Management Or Leadership

Poorly managed workplaces are more likely to be hostile environments. This is because there is often a lack of clear expectations or rules, and employees may feel like they can’t speak up or that their concerns will fall on deaf ears. Also, managers set the workplace’s tone and can foster a positive or negative culture.

A History Of Harassment

If a workplace has a history of harassment, it can create an environment where employees feel unsafe, or their concerns will not be taken seriously.

Stressful Situations

Hostile environments can often result from stressful situations, such as downsizing, mergers, or acquisitions. This is because employees may feel like their jobs are at risk and are under a lot of pressure to perform.

Sexual Harassment

Hostile work environments can also be created by sexual harassment, which is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

A lack Of Clear Policies Or Procedures

If a workplace doesn’t have clear policies or procedures in place, it can create an environment where employees feel like they are not protected. This can lead to employees feeling like they need to watch their back or that their concerns will not be taken seriously.

Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is another common cause of hostile work environments. Bullying can take many different forms, including verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, and isolation.

Customers Or Clients Behaving In A Hostile Manner Towards Employees

This can be the result of a customer or client feeling entitled or that they are not being treated correctly. It can also be the result of a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Hostile Work Environment Laws


 Pleasant muslim woman sitting while representative of another religious group is harassing her

A hostile work environment claim is a workplace discrimination claim under federal law. The person complaining must prove they were discriminated against based on race, gender, color, religion, sexual orientation, ancestry, national origin, pregnancy, age, or disability. Also, the actions must have been pervasive and severe enough to be considered abusive.

It is important to note that not all hostile work environments are illegal. The EEOC states that petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.

However, if the hostile environment is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive, then it may be illegal.

But one thing to note is that even if a hostile work environment is not illegal, it can still hurt employees and the workplace. This is why employers must prevent and address hostile work environments, even if they are not required to do so by law.

Imagine you frequently overhear the VP of sales yelling at their assistant or see them shoving their business development executives. This could signify that their teams are experiencing a hostile workplace where they’re victimized or afraid. Even when someone is regularly resorting to passive-aggressive behaviors or pushing others to unhealthy competition, that’s a red flag – even though this behavior is likely not illegal.

If you believe you are working in a hostile environment, you should report the behavior to your supervisor, employer, or Human Resource department. Suppose your company does not take action to fix the problem, you may be able to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state’s fair employment agency.

What Are The Effects Of A Hostile Work Environment?

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Increased Stress And Anxiety

A hostile work environment can lead to increased stress and anxiety levels. This can harm your physical health, as well as your mental health.

Difficulty Concentrating

If you are constantly feeling stressed or anxious at work, it can be challenging to concentrate. This can lead to mistakes being made or missed deadlines.

Poor Job Performance

A hostile environment can also lead to poor job performance. This is because you may be too stressed or anxious to do your best work.


Employees who feel like they are in a hostile work environment are more likely to take time off from work. This can be due to stress or anxiety or because they feel like they need a break from the hostile environment.


A hostile work environment can also lead to employees quitting their job. This is because they may not feel valued, or their concerns are being heard.

Decreased Morale

When the workplace is hostile, it can lead to decreased morale. This is because employees may not feel like the company does not have their best interests at heart or that they are part of a team.

Legal Risks

If the hostile environment is the result of discrimination, harassment, or other illegal behavior, it can lead to legal problems for the company. This could include fines, lawsuits, or bad publicity.

How Can You Fix A Hostile Work Environment?

An angry boss shouting at an employee


Address The Root Cause

The first step to fixing a hostile work environment is to address the root cause. This could involve training for managers, increasing diversity, or changing company policies.

Create An Action Plan

Once the root cause has been addressed, you must create an action plan. This should include what you will do to fix the hostile environment and how to prevent it from happening again.

Implement The Action Plan

The next step is to implement the action plan. For example, you could hire new employees, change company policies, or increase communication.

Evaluate The Results

After you have implemented the action plan, you need to evaluate the results. This will help you see if the hostile environment has been fixed and if any areas still need improvement.

A hostile work environment can have a negative impact on employees, as well as the company. If you think your workplace might be hostile, it’s essential to address the issue. By taking steps to fix the hostile environment, you can improve morale, job performance, and communication within the company.

Ways To Prevent A Hostile Environment And Promote A Healthy Workplace

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Creating a positive work environment is essential for the employees and the company. Below, we share some ideas to help out:

Promote Diversity And Inclusion

One of the best ways to prevent a hostile work environment is to promote diversity and inclusion. This means creating a workplace where everyone feels welcome, valued, and respected.

Encourage Open Communication

Encouraging open communication between employees and management can help to create a positive work environment. This is because employees will feel like they can speak up if they have concerns, experience, or witness hostile behavior.

Investigate Reports Of Hostile Behavior

If you receive reports of hostile behavior, it is important to investigate them immediately. This will show employees that you take their concerns seriously and are committed to creating a safe and respectful workplace.

Ethical Management And Proactive HRs:

A hostile workplace can effectively be prevented with ethical management and proactive Human Resources policies. Ensuring that the employees are comfortable with their managers and trusting the human resources department would go a long way in maintaining a healthy and productive workplace.

You should also provide sound advice to employees facing a hostile environment, such as their ability to file police reports or civil lawsuits when appropriate. Hostile behavior can be reported without fear of reprisal.


A stressed-out woman is chatting with her mental health counselor. She is explaining her problems. She is staying positive with a smile.


A hostile work environment can have a negative impact on employees, as well as the company. If you think your workplace might be hostile, it’s essential to address the issue. By taking steps to fix the hostile environment, you can improve morale, job performance, and communication within the company.

Need Help With Human Resources Management?

If you need help with human resources management or any other human resources function, reach out to us today. We would be happy to talk with you about your specific needs and see how we can help.