7 Things You Must Know About A Hostile Work Environment

The law defines an unlawful hostile work environment to mean when a superior or coworker communication or behavior that is offensive, intimating, or discriminate on the basis of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, etc.

Brad Nakase, Attorney

Email  |  Call (888) 600-8654

If this article doesn’t answer your questions, please send me an email with your question for a free consultation. I got your back.

1. What is Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a workplace that intimidates employees and makes them feel uncomfortable and/or scared due to unwelcomed conduct. This definition of hostile work environment gives rise to a number of questions, such as:

  • What are the tangible signs of a hostile work environment?
  • What kind of conduct is ‘unwelcome’?
  • What is the severity or frequency of unwelcome conduct that produces a hostile environment?
  • How can an organization be sure that workers truly feel scared or intimidated instead of just being unsatisfied with their workplace?

Answers to such questions will help us determine what qualifies as a hostile work environment. Sometimes, employers may need to make some improvements to create a happier and more productive workplace, but it does not necessarily mean employers should worry about hostility or legal complaints. In this article, you will learn about what is considered a hostile work environment.

3. What is unwelcome conduct?

We know that a hostile work environment includes sexual harassment. Harassment, inappropriate sexual conduct, discrimination, violence victimization and many other kinds of offensive behavior is considered a hostile work environment. Happening consistently or purposefully, all of these things will create a hostile work environment.

A single incident of misconduct may also create a hostile situation for an individual but will probably not create a hostile work environment that affects everyone.

If someone makes a sexist remark about a colleague, they should face repercussions, but the off-hand comment is not likely to foster hostility in the workplace.

On the other hand, if that person is a manager or makes such comments on a regular basis, their conduct can create a hostile work environment.

Though not very common in real life, severe incidents of such misconduct do occur in workplaces, including sexual assault. And these extreme types of conduct, even if they happen only once, create a hostile environment.

4. Signs of a hostile work environment

A toxic workplace has certain characteristics that is considered a hostile work environment; for example, employees experiencing burnout symptoms, workers arguing often, people complaining that they are underappreciated or underpaid. There are several other signs that point to job dissatisfaction, such as lack of resources, absenteeism, job insecurity because of layoffs, etc.

In a hostile work environment, you are more likely to see apprehension, fear, and official complaints to HR about discrimination or bullying.

5. What behaviors are regarded as criteria for a hostile work environment?

Here are some examples of what is considered to be a hostile work environment:

  • Sexual/racial harassment

    These are the two things that always produce a hostile environment for workers. You cannot have people issuing vulgar remarks about gender or sexual orientation, spewing out racial slurs or ridiculing others on the basis of race or sex, and claim that you have a healthy workplace. If you have received complaints about such conduct or heard it yourself, you are probably going to witness increased hostility in the workplace.

  • Discrimination of any kind

For example, you may hear about a hiring manager regularly refusing applicants who are older than a certain age, or who are female or foreign-born. This shows that the person in question is biased against these groups of people, and it is quite possible they do not behave properly with those already in your organization belonging to those groups. Not only can this create bias and foster a hostile workplace, but many countries have laws in place against discrimination.

  • Consistent aggressiveness

Imagine you repeatedly overhear the sales VP yelling at their personal assistant or see them thrusting their business development executives. It could be a sign that their teams are facing a hostile workplace where they are victimized almost every day. Even when someone is frequently resorting to passive-aggressive behavior or pushing their coworkers or subordinates to unhealthy competition, that is a red flag – although this behavior is likely not illegal.

  • Ridiculing or victimization

People may play jokes or tease each other in the workplace – that is normal between workmates. But if you see a grave prank that leaves the person utterly embarrassed and frustrated, or if someone has set up a social media group to ridicule a colleague, it is a sign of a hostile workplace. Targeting employees or colleagues for public humiliation is unacceptable. This is evident from the increased focus on cyberbullying.

  • Lots of complaints and punishment threats

If workers are constantly filing complaints and supervisors talk of disciplining employees, something is wrong. Even if you do not see official complaints, keep your eyes and ears open when the conversation turns to personal experiences in the workplace.

  • That feeling you get

Your gut can tell you if you are working in a good or a bad workplace. If you and your coworkers often feel miserable and/or threatened, that is a clear sign of a hostile work environment. Keep an eye on the people who slander or sabotage others, who are often disrespectful or offensive, and who belittle other’s ideas or personalities. They might be creating a hostile environment.

These are the signs you should watch for to identify those at fault –whether you are looking in from the outside or from the inside. If you are a manager, it becomes easier to recognize undesirable behavior in your team since you interact with them regularly.

6. How to fix a hostile workplace

There is no clear answer to this question as each organization deals with a bad work environment on a case-by-case basis.

A hostile workplace created by an individual has an obvious solution –fire the culprit, or at least warn them effectively, so it does not happen again. But things might not always be that simple. What if that person is the CEO or any other office-bearer who is above your authority? What if they are the best performer and the firm needs them desperately? What if there are some other issues you had not foreseen, or what if their action was not so severe as to deserve termination?

One way of dealing with the problem could be speaking directly to the at-fault person. If they are unwilling to change, go to their boss and explain the situation. Luckily, if you are their supervisor, you have the authority to persuade them into really listening and putting their act together.

If the person creating hostility is the CEO, then the situation is more problematic. You can, however, talk to them and make your case by appealing to their best interests as the CEO. Try to persuade them by giving them performance data and speak to them about the nature of complaints. It could also be beneficial to talk about turnover rates and associated costs. Present them a list of necessary changes or a course of action.

Managers and HR offices need to be bold enough to fire employees who pose ethical and legal risks with their troubling behavior – even if they are the stars of their field of expertise. Sometimes, even unruly CEOs could be forced to resign if there is enough pressure.

7. What if it’s a culture problem?

The most difficult hostile work environment cases are those where the entire organization, or a good part of it, contributes to hostility. The notorious “bro cultures” in some companies are good examples of hostile workplaces where women or LGBTQ people are frequently targeted. Even “idle banter” can lead to fostering a hostile work environment.

Uber is perhaps one of the most well-known examples because it has not only allegedly saw cases of sexual harassment in the company’s offices but has also been accused of not doing enough to protect its passengers. But Uber is not alone in facing serious allegations. Recently, former and current FBI agents sued the Federal Bureau of Investigation for racial and gender discrimination.

It is not a stretch to imagine these two organizations being on the list of hostile work environment examples due to the reported systemic discrimination and abusive culture. If your firm has a hostile work environment because of cultural problems, you have your work cut out for you.

  • Draft a company policy, depending on the nature of the problem

For example, if the main issue is sexual harassment, which often is, make sure you have a policy that clearly defines different forms of harassment. State disciplinary actions if someone engages in sexual harassment. It would also be useful to have a policy detailing acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in general because there is no universal consensus on what those behaviors are. Remember to include conduct on social media in your policy.

  • Get buy-in from executives

Some executives (particularly senior management) may deliberately promote or participate in the toxic culture. But others may not have noticed it, especially if they are not involved in the day-to-day operations. Approach them and talk to them openly. Make sure they take the situation seriously. Present data on complaints and information on legal risks. If they understand your problem and show a willingness to fix it, work with them for a plan.

  • Open up paths of communication and act properly

According to some statistics, almost all cases of sexual harassment at the workplace go unreported. This is because many employers respond negatively to complaints and retaliate against the complainant (mostly by firing them). This kind of behavior should be unacceptable for any serious company, and it is also illegal under EEOC laws.

Assure your workers that they can report their complaints, investigate the complaints properly and always be prepared to take action (against the perpetrator, not the victim) when you find compelling evidence. You should also provide proper advice to employees facing a hostile environment. Help them file police reports or civil lawsuits when necessary.

You should be able to immediately stop inappropriate conduct before it turns into harassment or violence. But you need to be patient as broader changes in culture do not happen overnight. You might feel hesitant to rock the boat by fear of dividing or antagonizing your team or lose good employees. But you need to pull through anyway.

Free Consultation

2 + 2 = ?

Retaliation for Reporting Harassment at Work

An employer who punishes an employee who reported sexual harassment in the workplace violates state and federal law and is liable for retaliation. Examples of retaliation include demotion, fewer working hours, segregation, or termination.

Obscene and Sexual Gestures a Work

We're not talking about the ubiquitous middle finger that says fuck you. Obscene and sexual gestures at work may include two fingers in a V shape, with a tongue in between. 

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

One of the most common types of sexual harassment is Quid pro quo sexual harassment, and it is one of the easiest to hide. All types of workplace sexual harassment are illegal.

Reporting Time Pay

Wages are what we mean when we use the term "reporting time pay." If employers do not pay all of this at the moment of an employee being terminated, there may be waiting time penalties involved.

Can I Sue My Employer For Not Paying Me Correctly?

Employees work hard and deserve to be paid correctly, and on time. It sucks when an employee works hard, and long hours only to be paid incorrectly while the boss is driving a Lambo or Benz.

8 FAQ Answer: Employees Must Know About Wrongful Termination

If an employee believes that he or she has been unlawfully fired from their job, he or she may file a wrongful termination claim in court. These claims are based on the alleged breaking of federal or state anti-discrimination law, employment contracts, or labor laws.

What Are the Signs of a Toxic Coworker?

The 8 identifying traits of of a toxic coworker are: 1. The toxic coworker is often sarcastic. 2. The toxic coworker often insults and mock others. 3. The toxic coworker is selfish...

Two-Week Notice Letter: 9 Tips and 2 Templates

If an employee decides to resign from his or her job, it is normal and expected to provide their employer with two weeks’ notice. Regardless of why a person is leaving their job, it is considered professional to give their employer enough time to make plans to cover the absence.

Do guys get paid paternity leave?

A father is eligible for paternity leave if three conditions are met: 1) welcome a new child within the first twelve months; 2) Paid into the State Disability Insurance; 3) Has not taken more than eight weeks of paternity leave in the past twelve months.

6 Things to Know About At-Will Employment

“At-will” means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason at any time without getting into legal trouble. The exception is that the reason cannot be illegal in nature.

7 Things Women Should Know About Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is an umbrella term covering many forms of unwelcome verbal and physical sexual attention. Sexual assault, meanwhile, is physical sexual contact or behavior that happens without the consent of the victim.

How Long Is Maternity Leave in California?

Under California law, companies with at least five employees must provide new parents with 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Similarly, companies with at least five employees must also grant up to four months of unpaid pregnancy-disability leave to workers who are unable to work due to pregnancy or childbirth.

10 Tips on California Law Expense Reimbursement Time Limit

Under California labor law, employers are required to reimburse employees for business expenses made during the course of their employment, so long as they are necessary and reasonable in nature. This means that an employer must pay an employee back for any financial losses the employee accepted as part of doing his or her job.

What are the 4 Caregiver rights in California?

Employers often face lawsuits from caregivers for violating caregivers’ rights, such as basic wages. A caregiver is an individual who has taken on the role of both care provider and advocate.

How to Find an Employment Lawyer

Often referred to as work lawyers, employment lawyers are attorneys who specialize in employment law and represent workers in all positions across many industries. In California, employment lawyers understand workers’ rights according to the state’s labor laws and can help wronged employees sue and seek damages for improper or unlawful treatment at a workplace.

6 Tips for Prorated Vacation

Employees can earn time off according to different methods, which are normally specified in an employee handbook. Some employers choose to have employees accrue vacation time based on hours worked.

See all blogs: Business | Corporate | Employment

Family Member Stealing from Business

The best way to reduce the chance of embezzlement from a family business is to provide education to all employees, implement strict rules about how the company’s assets and funds can be used, and put in place controls that will spot wrongdoing immediately.

Director Stole Money from Company

An example of embezzlement is when a corporate director took money from a cash register and used the funds for his benefit.

Can You Force a Business Partner Out?

Partnership agreements and partnership law guide business partnerships. The partnership agreement determines when and how one partner may force another out of the business. Business partnership law controls the procedure for forcing a partner out if there is no partnership agreement.

Can I Take My Business Partner to Court?

You can take a business partner to court by suing the partner. You may use the business partner for embezzlement, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, or negligence.

7 Tips for Buying Out a Business Partner

There are many reasons to buy out a business partner, including giving you complete control of the company. The steps for buying out a business partner include: 1) Determining the assets you’re buying, 2) Clear communication, 3) Hire an attorney and CPA, 4) Retain expert in business valuation, 5) Draft a partnership buyout agreement, 6) Determining buyout financing…

What to do if someone breaks a verbal agreement?

If someone breaks a verbal agreement, the first thing to do is to determine if the verbal agreement is valid. If the agreement is valid, hire and lawyer and sue for money damages or specific performance.

How to Register a Business Name in California

To register a business name in California, check if an existing business already uses the name. Then, register the business name with the California Secretary of State if the company is going to be an entity. Register the business's name with the city’s county recorder if the business is not an entity.

Is a Verbal Contract Enforceable in California?

A verbal contract is generally enforceable in California, with some exceptions. Two of several exceptions to enforcing oral contracts are contracts that involve real estate leases, buying or selling real estate.

7 Best Women Business Organizations

For women business owners, it is critical to develop connections with fellow professionals in order to create useful networks. There are plenty of associations that support women, and which can be very beneficial for small business owners looking for advice and fellowship.

5 Unsecured Business Credit Cards for Startups

What is an unsecured business credit card? An unsecured credit card does not require a personal guarantee from the business owner. Small business owners prefer an unsecured credit card.

10 Facts About Business Before Starting A Business

1) More than 50% of new businesses survive their first year in business. 2) Less than 50% of family-owned businesses are passed to their children. 3) 40% of business experience challenges in the supply chain…

Advantages of Buying an Existing Business

Starting a new business is challenging. Buying an existing business has its advantages, including knowing what is already there and improving on it: trained employees, existing customers, and operating expenses.


SBA CAPLines are SBA lines of credit that help a small business improve short-term cash flow. The SBA CAPLines have four types of credit: 1) Seasonal CAPLine, 2) Contract CAPLine, 3) Builders CAPLine, and 4) Working CAPLine.

Deceit Definition | Definition of Fraud

Deceit as defined is tortious fraud or deceit occurs when a party “willfully deceives another with the intent to induce him to alter his position to his injury or risk.” Civ. Code § 1709. Fraud has three meanings: 1) A person made a false promise, 2) A person conceal important facts, and 3) A person intentionally misrepresent an important fact.

Is Small Business Loan Secured or Unsecured

Although a small business loan may be secured or unsecured, nearly always, the loan is secured. The bank loans are nearly always secured by the business’s accounts receivable, intangible assets, and tangible property, if any exists.

5 Steps on How to Build Business Credit with Bad Personal Credit

It is challenging but not impossible to build business credit if an entrepreneur has bad personal credit. A good credit score can set a business up for success. Even if a business owner has a poor personal credit score, he or she should still try to build up their company’s credit score.

3 Advantages of Balance Sheet

The benefits of a balance sheet assist business owners in having an overview of their income, assets, and liabilities. A balance sheet is necessary for lenders to determine how much money to loan a company.

How to Select an Entity Type For A Business

There are many factors when selecting an entity type for a business. Entrepreneurs should consider control, investors or shareholders, taxation, growth, and future needs.

How to Sell on Facebook Marketplace as a Business

Facebook Marketplace is a business service that lists and sells services and products. The marketplace is free for individuals. Businesses pay a 5% fee on services or products sold.

What does principal mean on a loan?

A loan principal is the amount of money that is borrowed. For example, when a bank approves and loans a person or business $100,000, that $100,000 is the loan principal.

What is a micropreneur mean?

Some popular types of micropreneurs include Airbnb hosts, bloggers, life coaches, tutors, and photographers.

Payment Upfront Meaning & 5 Tips for Getting Upfront Payments from Customers

Upfront payments can be beneficial to many small business owners. Upfront payments protect the owner emotionally and financially. There is no fear of customers disappearing without paying for products or services. It is also a great method by which to build trust with customers. It can also help improve cash flow, thereby letting the business grow and flourish.

See all blog: Business | Corporate | Employment

© Copyright | Nakase Law Firm (2019)