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Hostile work environments: what you need to know

On Behalf of | Apr 10, 2024 | Discrimination And Harassment, Firm News

In American workplaces, everyone has the right to feel safe, respected and comfortable. However, it is an unfortunate fact that this is not always the case. In fact, most employees experience some form of work discrimination in one form or another during their careers.

What is a hostile work environment?

When someone works in a work environment that is hostile, they often feel uncomfortable, discriminated against or intimidated on the job by their superiors or colleagues.

Most of the time, this treatment comes from the person they report to, and it can spread throughout teams, departments and, sometimes, become part of the company’s culture.

What are hostile behaviors?

It is important to know what makes up hostile behavior at work. Some behaviors are more obvious than others. For example, harassment, unwanted behaviors and sexual advances are more obvious types of hostile behaviors.

We have less obvious forms of hostile behaviors, typically regarded as recurring microaggressions or behaviors that are subtle but aggressive and, unfortunately, more difficult to prove. However, even though these behaviors are harder to prove, that does not mean the employer benefits from them.

In fact, studies consistently show that if these behaviors go by without intervention, and management does not act to stop the illegal aggressions, the culture of their company usually suffers tremendously, leading to loss of profits, a poor reputation and other harm that stems directly from these behaviors.

Let’s look at the most common hostile behaviors in the workplace, including but not limited to:

  • Harassment in any of its forms.
  • Discrimination, which is treating someone differently based on a protected characteristic.
  • Intimidation, which is behavior that aims to threaten and make someone afraid to speak up.

Legal protections

Every state in the country has laws to protect employees against hostile work environments. Federal law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination and harassment in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

In California specifically, state law provides protections for employees against discriminatory practices in the workplace.

In addition, companies themselves have policies to fight discrimination, harassment and hostile work environments because it is a real problem, and it is most often not the company’s fault, but the individual responsible may be one employee or a group of employees, usually ones who hold authority and manage other employees.

What you must do

  • If you experience a hostile work environment, make sure you document absolutely everything. If it happens once, odds are it will happen again.
  • Report any instances that make you feel uncomfortable. Most employees do not make false accusations, although that happens.
  • Seek support. Having mentors and people you can trust to speak with about what you are going through is helpful.

Defending yourself: the big picture

Know your rights and do not be afraid. In many of these cases, the employer may attempt to make you feel intimidated so you do not speak up. However, every employee has the right to feel safe at work. Ironically, the employer is not doing themselves any favors by failing to protect the talent they hire.

Over time, if these behaviors go by unaddressed and if the people who make employees feel uncomfortable are not subject to discipline, it is not only the employee who will suffer, but the company at large.

In addition, if things do not get better after you address the problem or if you are retaliated against for bringing light to the issue happening to you, you can seek legal counsel.

Employees have rights, there are other employers in the sea and know that companies that do not protect their employees from hostile work environments and allow these behaviors to drag their companies down are less likely to succeed, attract the best talent and profit the most in the business.