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Identifying a hostile work environment

Sometimes an undesirable workplace situation goes beyond rude behavior and uncomfortable work conditions and into abusive, intimidating or unsafe territory. A hostile work environment can impact your ability to complete your job comfortably, and even threaten your security or wellbeing.

These environments are not just unpleasant. They are unlawfully discriminatory or dangerous to one’s mental, emotional or physical safety.

When is a work environment considered excessively hostile?

A lack of professional behavior, including social exclusion, teasing or unkindness, may not qualify as workplace hostility in a legal sense. However, behavior that aims to harass or discriminate against an employee either through abusive comments or behavior or threats to employment status is legal harassment.

This includes:

  • Discussing inappropriate topics
  • Telling offensive jokes
  • Inappropriate comments or touching
  • Displaying offensive gestures, pictures or artworks
  • Using degrading language
  • Requiring inappropriate participation as a condition of employment

Such behaviors create an offensive and intimidating workplace in which you may feel unwelcome or fear for your safety and acceptance.

What constitutes unlawful harassment or discrimination?

When hostile workplace behavior targets one’s race, color, religion, age, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability, genetics or family status, it is illegal.

While it is easier to classify a workplace as hostile when the intent to sabotage or disrupt the peace for other employees is clear, hostility does not need to be outrightly negative. In fact, hostile work environments are often created through inappropriate comments about your physical appearance, biased comments about protected groups or passive yet offensive gestures directed to no one person in particular.

If you suspect you are in a hostile work environment, the first step is to file a report with your employer. If necessary, you may need to pursue further action to fight the hostility.