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A hostile work environment is a toxic work environment—but one that’s ratcheted upseveral notches.
It’s more than havinga boss who doesn’t listen well ora coworker who’s gossipy (though those problems can be difficult to deal with as well).
Rather, a hostile work environment is a workplace that consistently doles out harassment and discrimination—to the point where work becomes intimidating or abusive.
According to attorney Brad Nakase, ahostile work environment is “a workplace that intimidates employees and makes them feel uncomfortable and/or scared due to unwelcome conduct.”
As an employee, you have legal rights that protect you from being targeted by or witnessing this kind of behavior, but it’s important to know what constitutes harassment and what is considered a “petty incident” or a one-off offensive slight.
If you’re experiencing any sort of bad workplace behavior, you may wonder if you’re in a hostile environment, legally speaking.
And it can be hard to determine what constitutes this since the lines of toxicity to straight-up hostility can be a bit blurry. Below are six signs that you’re in an outwardly hostile workplace.
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,workplace harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”
While any harassment is of course unethical and unkind, what takes harassment and makes it unlawful, according to the EEOC, is when:
- The person being harassed (or witnesses to the harassment) must endure the behavior in order to stay employed.
- The harassment is “severe or pervasive enough” that the environment would be considered intimidating or abusive to an average person.
6 Signs of a Hostile Work Environment
If you’re wondering whether bullying at work is technically illegal or just someone being mean, here are the red flags that you’re dealing with more than just bad behavior—that it’s likely straight-up workplace hostility that may be illegal.
Sign #1: It's a toxic work environment.
A toxic work environment doesn’t mean you’re necessarily in a hostile work environment. But a hostile work environment means you’re in a toxic workplace. Make sense?
In other words, if your workplace is toxic—if you’re experiencing or witnessing bullying, gossip, exclusion, insults, miscommunication, or any of the other telltale signs of a toxic work environment—your spidey senses should kick into gear.
Toxic behavior can quickly slide into outwardly hostile behavior. If you’re seeing these signs, start to watch for hostility.
What to Do:We’ve said it over and over again, but data is your friend in any situation like this. This is when it’s important to start taking stock of what’s happening and start taking careful notes about each incident.
It’s one thing if someone makes an unkind remark about a colleague’s work in a stressful situation (still not cool, obviously, but likely not considered hostile). It’s another if you start to notice consistent bullying or discriminatory actions based on sex, age, color, religion, or other similar factors.
Date each incident and provide as much detail as possible. Your notes will matter here, as they may be considered evidence of hostile behavior, should the situation escalate.
At this point, we also recommend immediately speaking with your manager and/or with human resources. If you’re noticing toxic behavior enough to record it, it’s also time to report it. Do your due diligence.
Sign #2: The hostile workplace behavior happens consistently.
The EEOC’s explanation of workplace harassment specifically notes that the harassment must be “consistent” and “pervasive” to be considered illegal. “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality,” their definition notes.
This means that a one-off incident in which a supervisor makes a discriminatory remark toward an employee may not be considered workplace hostility, in a legal sense. (Though we’d still recommend reporting this to your supervisor or HR).
Watch for this behavior to happen consistently over a period of time.
What to Do:You probably guessed it...more note-taking and data collecting. If you can prove it’sconsistent, you can prove it’s pervasive. Thorough records of the incidents you’re experiencing or witnessing will help show that harassment is taking place. And, again, reporting the behavior to the appropriate parties is important here too.
Sign #3: The hostile behavior becomes aggressive.
Bad workplace behavior doesn’t have to be physically aggressive to be a sign of workplace hostility (though if you’re seeing that, certainly report it). Aggression can look like verbal attacks, spiteful comments, or cruelty toward someone in general.
Aggression will likely look like standard bullying behavior at work. If you’re seeing that, you’re likely in a hostile workplace.
What to Do:If your physical safety or the safety of another person is at risk, immediately intervene, in the safest way possible. This may be one of those rare moments in whichrage-quitting and walking out is okay.
This is also the prime time to speak to HR and consider reporting the behavior to proper authorities (which we’ll discuss below).
Sign #4: The hostile behavior is discriminatory.
Per the EEOC’s definition of harassment, bad behavior must violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, or the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
A telltale sign of a hostile work environment is if the behavior you’re experiencing or witnessing is discriminatory based on “race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), or genetic information (including family history).”
If you hear a manager speaking poorly about an older colleague, experience unfair treatmentbecause of pregnancy, overhear racist or sexist remarks, or experience gender discrimination, you may be in a hostile work environment.
This would also look like sexual harassment of any sort, including lude comments or explicit material circulating.
What to Do:Speak up. If you notice that this is happening, immediately go to your manager (assuming they’re not the perpetrator). If they are, go to HR—with your notes about the incident(s) in hand.
Even if the behavior doesn’t rise to the level of true harassment, it’s still likely grounds for intervention.
Resources for BIPOC Community:
- Live Another Day: Extensive information on mental health and substance use resources for People of Color. Their mission is equal access to life-saving resources.
- Detox Local:An excellent resource that features abundant information including mental health and substance use resources specifically for the AAPI (American Asian and Pacific Islander) community.
Sign #5: The behavior disrupts the ability to work or the ability to move forward in one's career.
If the behavior is so bad that it’s interfering with work, it’s probably considered hostile behavior.
For example, if you’re being bullied by a colleague or supervisor to the point that you’re unable to concentrate on your work, that’s likely harassment.
Similarly, if you’re worried about being able to move up the ladder in your career because of a supervisor who constantly berates you and causes emotional distress, that’s likely harassment.
What to Do:If this is the case, it’s likely time to speak with HR and then jump ship and quit. No job is worth being constantly berated or victimized. Moving up the ladder isn’t worth sacrificing your mental health. You may also wish to report this behavior to proper authorities.
Sign #6: The victim of the harassing behavior feels stuck.
Finally, a sign of a hostile workplace is feeling like you can’t get out.
Your colleague or boss may make you feel as if you won’t be able to find another role, that your skills are obsolete, or usegaslighting techniques to make you question your own experiences or what you’ve been witness to. All of these are major red flags.
What to Do:First, realize that you’re never stuck. We realize that our jobs are often tied to our health insurance, that they’re our sources of income, and that these are things not to be taken lightly. If you’re feeling bullied and afraid to quit your position, however, it’s time to speak with management about your concerns and then do your best to prepare to get out.
This may look like spending some time preparing your finances, looking for a promising new job, or speaking with a lawyer about how to best proceed.
Examples of Hostile Behavior at Work
There are all sorts of hostile work situations. That said, the EEOC’s definition of what rises to the level of illegality includes pervasive discriminatory behaviors. Here are a few examples of behaviors that would be considered hostile.
- Sexual harassment like sexually suggestive behavior, showing photos, unwanted physical touching, making sexual jokes, or invading someone’s personal space
- Discriminatory, racist comments or jokes, or ethnic slurs
- Consistently commenting on someone’s appearance
- Group shaming of a single person
- Sabotage of a person’s work
- Unwelcome touching of any kind
- Threatening behavior
It’s also important to remember that hostile work environments aren’t limited to hostility in an in-person situation. Examples of a hostile remote work environment could include:
- Forming an online group that excludes a colleague for the sake of shaming or bullying
- Posting photos of a colleague online
- Online bullying through chat or social media platforms
- Sabotage of someone’s work online
How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment
It’s tricky to prove whether your workplace is hostile or simply toxic. In the event that the situation has become severe enough to escalate matters, you’ll want to do a few things.
First, you must have done your due diligence.
This means you’ve collected data about the behavior you believe to be hostile, and you’ve asked your manager and HR to address it. You’ll want to document your discussions with your boss and HR as well. Any tangible proof you have is helpful.
At that point, your employer has been made aware of the situation, and it’s their duty to solve the problem. In fact, the employer may be liable for allowing the behavior in the first place, so it can be detrimental for them if they don’t intervene at this point.
This may mean termination of the offending employee, or they may put the employee on a behavior correction plan. Either way, this will hopefully solve the problem. And note thatthe EEOC protects employees from retaliation for filing a complaint with an employer.
If it doesn’t solve the issue, however, and you’ve decided to take legal action because of a severe case, you’ll again want to compile lots of data.
You’ll need physical evidence of the discriminatory harassment (this might look like screenshots or photos), written and dated records of the interactions, and witness statements, and your next step would be toconsult an attorney such as hostile work environment attorneys.
- Be gentle with yourself. ...
- Don't feel like you have to explain yourself or justify your departure. ...
- Try not to take hostile responses to your departure personally. ...
- Remember: A toxic workplace is not your fault.
- 7 Tips for Dealing with a Toxic Work Environment. By Sarah Stiefvater. ...
- Don't Stoop to a Toxic Colleague's Level. ...
- Leave Your Work Stress at the Door. ...
- Seek Out Positive Co-Workers. ...
- Practice How to Confront. ...
- Build Trust. ...
- Leave Your Job or Change Departments. ...
- Find Ways to Relieve Stress Outside of Work.
Toxic workplaces are full of confusion, arbitrary deadlines, lack of focus, and a general malaise that “this is the way it's always been done.” If new policies or regulations are constantly getting added, or if management is never around to help solve problems, these are symptoms of a larger problem stemming from poor ...Which three examples are most likely to contribute to a hostile work environment? ›
- Sexual / racial harassment. These are two things that always create a hostile environment for employees. ...
- Discrimination of any kind. ...
- Consistent aggressiveness. ...
- Ridiculing or victimization. ...
- Lots of complaints and threats for punishment. ...
- That feeling you get.
PTSD can also be caused by the office culture itself, Marter noted. Ongoing exposure to things like emotional abuse, threatening behaviors, or sexual or racial harassment can result in PTSD in the staff exposed to it.How do you leave a toxic job without burning bridges? ›
- Practice discretion during your job search.
- Prepare a letter of resignation and set a final day.
- Tell your boss first.
- Work until the last day.
- Prepare for an exit interview.
Toxic employees are typically overconfident, have self-centered attitudes, and are rule breakers. They tend not to cooperate with others or respect their co-workers because they're always looking out for number one, which can make them difficult people in the workplace environment where teamwork is needed most often.What does a toxic workplace look like? ›
But what exactly does a toxic workplace actually look like? Researchers analyzed 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews from nearly 600 major U.S. companies and found employees describe toxic workplaces in five main ways: non-inclusive, disrespectful, unethical, cutthroat and abusive.What is a toxic workplace culture? ›
A toxic workplace can also be one that pays poorly, does not recognize or reward exceptional performance, prioritizes customers over employees, fails to allow internal mobility, denies employees a voice, violates trust or prevents its employees from unplugging by constantly blurring the line between work and life.What is unfair treatment at work? ›
Some of the most common examples of unfair treatment at work include: Spreading false rumors about coworkers. Neglecting a promotion or pay raise due to a race, gender, or other non-work-specific trait. Sending offensive emails or texts regarding an employee.
- It's no longer encouraging your growth. ...
- You've achieved what you set out to achieve. ...
- You actively look for ways to avoid your job. ...
- You regularly approach work with exhaustion, burnout, or dread. ...
- It's causing you to develop bad habits. ...
- Your workplace has become unhealthy.
If you're being pushed out of your job, don't wait to take action. The sooner you take action, the better. Talk to your employer, start looking for a new job, and consider speaking to an attorney if you're being pushed out because of discrimination or harassment. Don't let someone else control your career.Can I quit my job because of a hostile work environment? ›
A constructive discharge claim means that the worker quits or resigns because they are being harassed. If the employee quits because of the employer's unlawful discrimination, the employer may be responsible just as if they fired the employee, because the harassment forced the employee to quit.How do I prove my boss is hostile? ›
Generally, to prove a hostile workplace claim you must show that: you were harassed because of a protected characteristic. the harassment was unwelcome. the harassment was so pervasive or severe as to create an abusive work environment.What legally constitutes a hostile work environment? ›
A hostile work environment exists when the harassment is so severe and pervasive that it alters your ability to do your job. The behavior must be more than just offensive; it must be objectively abusive. The harasser can be anyone in the workplace, including a supervisor, coworker, or even a customer or client.Why is it so hard to leave a toxic job? ›
Moreover, some processes involve group dynamics and business cases, which require time, focus, and a clear state of mind. As the toxic workplace often drains all the energy one has, they feel so stressed, under pressure, and eager to leave, that they end up paralyzed, unable to take the next steps.What is secondary trauma stress? ›
Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.How a toxic work environment affects your mental health? ›
A toxic work environment leads to a constant fight or flight response in which your brain produces large amounts of cortisol (also known as the stress hormone), testosterone, and norepinephrine. This fight or flight response causes high stress levels, which can substantially affect mental and physical health.How do I leave a toxic job without notice? ›
If possible, inform them in person, but a phone call, a note or an email are all better than nothing. People who have a good relationship with their manager might also consider sharing some information about why they are leaving without notice.How do I get the courage to quit my job? ›
- Think long and hard about your life and your choices. ...
- Fear the “if only” more than the “what if.” ...
- Think, What's the worst that can happen?” ...
- Trust your gut. ...
- Trust what you love. ...
- Make decisions based on happiness. ...
- Set a good example for others.
- Be Discreet. When you're unhappy at work, venting to coworkers for emotional support is a natural stress reliever. ...
- Don't Go on a Rant. ...
- Write a Resignation Letter. ...
- Give at Least Two Weeks' Notice. ...
- Ace Your Exit Interview.
- Your gut tells you they don't like you. aslysun/Shutterstock. ...
- They don't smile when you're around. Andrew Balcombe/Shutterstock. ...
- They can't maintain eye contact with you. Domaskina/Shutterstock. ...
- They constantly stare at you. ...
- They avoid you. ...
- They don't acknowledge your presence. ...
- They feed the rumor mill. ...
- They're short with you.
Their Perfectionism Demotivates Their Team Members
High performers strive for quality in everything they do. They take pride in the high standard they set at the workplace. Naturally, they expect similar quality and perfectionism in everyone else in the team.
They force you to do additional work
It might be hard to spot at first, but consider watching how they give others tasks versus how you're asked to complete a task. If you find yourself constantly bogged down with additional red tape that others don't seem to have to deal with, your coworker may be sabotaging you.
A lack of teamwork in the workplace is a huge red flag. Without teamwork, collaboration fails, workplace relationships crumble, and business tends to take a hit. Customers can absolutely tell if employees have sour attitudes. Assess whether your team reflects any of these characteristics.Do you tell a toxic person they are toxic? ›
As soon as you notice toxic behaviors, confront the person. Call them out on any lies or inconsistencies. Tell them you don't appreciate how they behave. This shows them that you're paying attention — and you're giving them a chance to explain themselves or apologize.Why good employees quit? ›
One of the main reasons top performers leave is because they feel their career advancement isn't going as planned. “It doesn't matter if they like what they're working on, who they're working with and are compensated fairly or more than fairly,” says David Foote, chief analyst and research officer at Foote Partners.What is a dysfunctional work environment? ›
Work culture as a broader term refers to the work environment, company mission, value, ethics, expectations and goals of a business. A dysfunctional work culture is one that is toxic and inefficient, arising from a multitude of issues, one of which is leadership.What is weak workplace culture? ›
Weak Organizational culture: According to , a weak Organizational culture refers to values and beliefs not strongly and widely shared within the Organization. This implies that individual members of the Organizational rely more on personal principles, norms and values.What are managers not allowed to do? ›
Not pay you overtime or minimum wage. Promise a job to an unpaid intern. Discriminate against workers. Allow you to work off the clock.
Constructive dismissal is when you're forced to leave your job against your will because of your employer's conduct. The reasons you leave your job must be serious, for example, they: do not pay you or suddenly demote you for no reason.What are two examples of unfair treatment in the workplace? ›
Unfair treatment can take many forms. It can include illegal harassment and discrimination based on a “protected characteristic” such as age, disability, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, color, nationality, or sex.How do bosses feel when you quit? ›
Leaving a job can be an emotional experience for you and your boss. When you tell your supervisor you're quitting, you are essentially stating that you are firing him as your boss. He may feel shocked, angry, or defensive. He may have to answer to a superior about why you decided to leave.What is soft quitting? ›
Quiet quitting doesn't mean an employee has left their job, but rather has limited their tasks to those strictly within their job description to avoid working longer hours. They want to do the bare minimum to get the job done and set clear boundaries to improve work-life balance.What is quiet quitting? ›
Quiet quitting is an application of work-to-rule, in which employees work within defined work hours and engage in work-related activities solely within those hours. Despite the name, the philosophy of quiet quitting is not connected to quitting a job outright, but rather doing precisely what the job requires.How do you know if your boss is trying to replace you? ›
- Your Work is Micromanaged: Is your boss or manager suddenly micromanaging your work? ...
- Mentoring a Junior: Telling you to mentor your subordinate or junior and train them on the exact jobs you solely do can be an indication that you are not needed in an organization.
Allowed in decision making, frequent incentives, positive feedback etc. are most common signs that your boss wants you to stay. However, it's not always apparent whether or not your supervisor likes you, so keep an eye out for the signs to know if your boss wants you to stay.How do you prove a toxic work environment? ›
- There are no boundaries around work. ...
- People don't trust each other. ...
- There's no room to make mistakes. ...
- People treat each other with contempt. ...
- The interpersonal relationships aren't healthy. ...
- There is no support for employee growth. ...
- People frequently feel gaslighted.
- Sexual / racial harassment. ...
- Discrimination of any kind. ...
- Consistent aggressiveness. ...
- Ridiculing or victimization. ...
- Lots of complaints and threats for punishment. ...
- That feeling you get.
If asked why you cannot give your previous employer as a reference, you can say something like: “I left voluntarily because it was not a great culture fit. I loved the work I was doing, but my experience there was not ideal and I'm not confident that they would give the best summary of my job performance.”
That alone isn't enough to win the lawsuit, though. In addition to proving the harassment took place, the employee will also need to prove that the harassment created a hostile work environment.Is my workplace toxic or is it me? ›
Toxic workplaces are full of confusion, arbitrary deadlines, lack of focus, and a general malaise that “this is the way it's always been done.” If new policies or regulations are constantly getting added, or if management is never around to help solve problems, these are symptoms of a larger problem stemming from poor ...How do you prove a claim of hostile work environment harassment? ›
To establish a claim of hostile work environment based on sexual harassment, an employee must establish that: (1) he or she belongs to a protected group, (2) he or she has been subject to unwelcome harassment, (3) the harassment complained of was based on his/her sex, (4) the harassment was sufficiently “severe or ...What does retaliation in the workplace look like? ›
What is retaliation? Retaliation occurs when an employer (through a manager, supervisor, administrator or directly) fires an employee or takes any other type of adverse action against an employee for engaging in protected activity.What is not considered workplace harassment? ›
Behaviours that are not considered harassment are those that arise from a relationship of mutual consent. A hug between friends, mutual flirtation, and a compliment on physical appearance between colleagues are not considered harassment.What does the EEOC consider a hostile work environment? ›
Some types of qualifying hostile behaviors might include the following: Behaviors that cause physical discomfort or pain. Slurs, racial epithets, curses, and other language directed towards a protected group. Behaviors that result in adverse employment actions.› employment-lawyers › 10-thi... ›
7 Things You Must Know About A Hostile Work Environment
What Steps Do You Need to Take if You Work in a Hostile Work ...
How to Know If You Have a Hostile Work Environment
If you've finally had enough of the toxicity and bad behavior, and you've already tried to improve the situation to no avail, it's time to take care of your mental and professional health and leave.Why is it so hard to leave a toxic job? ›
Moreover, some processes involve group dynamics and business cases, which require time, focus, and a clear state of mind. As the toxic workplace often drains all the energy one has, they feel so stressed, under pressure, and eager to leave, that they end up paralyzed, unable to take the next steps.How do I leave a toxic job without notice? ›
If possible, inform them in person, but a phone call, a note or an email are all better than nothing. People who have a good relationship with their manager might also consider sharing some information about why they are leaving without notice.
Toxic workplaces rarely stay at work. They typically follow you home. They take over your conversations with loved ones, steal away much-needed sleep, and generally cause worry and stress. Toxic workplaces can lead to stress, burnout, depression, damage to your self-esteem, and serious disruptions in your normal life.What should you not say in an exit interview? ›
Rude and unprofessional comments
Your exit interview isn't the time to slam your former colleagues or talk about how much you hated one of your managers. Keep your language work appropriate, and remember to keep other people's feelings in mind. Your honest feedback is welcome, but not when it's offensive toward others.
It's starting to impact my health, and as such, I must tender my resignation. As you know, this is an extremely high-stress environment. Despite my very best efforts, I am not able to continue with this degree of elevated anxiety any longer. As such, I'm giving you my two weeks notice.How do you put a positive spin on quitting a job? ›
You might have felt justified at leaving a job because you didn't get a good raise. It can be even your post or title remains the same in the previous four years. You can simply explain that you had reached the growth ceiling in your position and now are ready to take up new challenges. This will put a positive spin.When should you quit your job? ›
It may be time to quit your job when you're no longer motivated to complete your daily tasks, feel overworked or burnt out, or want to move beyond your current position into a more advanced one. These are a few signs that it may be time to quit your job and get a better one that more effectively meets your needs.How do I quit my job professionally? ›
- Keep quiet. Don't tell coworkers you plan to quit before you tell your boss.
- Quit in person. Don't quit by email or by phone. ...
- Give two weeks' notice. More is better. ...
- Write a letter of resignation. Turn it in after you quit in person.
A toxic workplace can also be one that pays poorly, does not recognize or reward exceptional performance, prioritizes customers over employees, fails to allow internal mobility, denies employees a voice, violates trust or prevents its employees from unplugging by constantly blurring the line between work and life.Can I leave my job with immediate effect due to stress? ›
If you are resigning with immediate effect in protest at how you have been treated, a verbal resignation is enough, but it is better to put it in writing. Most employment contracts will require you to resign in writing – so, your notice period will not start to run until you give your employer written notice.Is it better to quit or be fired? ›
Resigning from a job has some advantages worth considering. One of the biggest perks is that it looks better on your resume than being fired. If you voluntarily leave a job, you tend to have greater control over your narrative. You can showcase your departure in a more positive light to prospective employers.What is the best reason for resignation? ›
Some good reasons for leaving a job include company downturn, acquisition, merger or restructuring as well as the desire for change — be it advancement, industry, environment, leadership or compensation. Family circumstances may also be a factor. Deciding to leave a job is a tough decision.
A lack of teamwork in the workplace is a huge red flag. Without teamwork, collaboration fails, workplace relationships crumble, and business tends to take a hit. Customers can absolutely tell if employees have sour attitudes. Assess whether your team reflects any of these characteristics.When should you walk away from toxic work? ›
Even if you don't have another job lined up, it's often best to put your two weeks in or simply quit and walk away from a toxic job before things go too far. There is always someone who will support you from that job to help you transition into your next phase.What is considered workplace harassment? ›
Physical or verbal assaults, including threats, intimidation, or ridicule; OR. Personal insults, objects or pictures that are offensive in nature, and any other conduct that directly interferes with an employee's work performance.