Hostile Work Environment? How to Handle It & What HRs Should Do

Hostile Work Environment: Some employees believe that a bad boss, an unpleasant work environment, a rude coworker, failure to qualify for a promotion, a lack of teamwork, or the lack of perks, privileges, benefits, and recognition can create a hostile work environment. Here is everything you need to know about a hostile work environment.

How to handle a Hostile Work Environment

What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment?

Be careful to distinguish between a situation that’s hostile and one that’s merely difficult or annoying.

In most cases, personality conflicts, petty slights, annoyances, rudeness, and isolated incidents do not constitute a hostile work environment.

To meet the requirements of a hostile work environment, the behavior must be:

  • Pervasive, severe, and persistent
  • Disruptive to the victim’s work
  • Something the employer knew about and did not address adequately enough to make a stop

A discriminatory comment or behavior that occurred once or twice typically isn’t enough to be considered a hostile work environment.

If the harasser is a supervisor, then the employer is held liable because the supervisor acts on behalf of the employer.

If both parties are not supervisors, then the victim must show that the harassment was reported and that the employer did not do enough to remedy the situation.

The complainant can be anyone affected by the conduct, not just the person who was directly targeted by the conduct.

How to Handle Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is, unfortunately, one of the more common types of workplace harassment. Here are some steps you should take if you are experiencing this.

First, determine whether you are being sexually harassed. Sexual harassment has to meet the following criteria for you to bring up a case.

Criteria for Workplace Sexual Harassment

  1. You must be offended by actions or comments that are unwelcome. This basically means that you have no claim if you find the comments humorous and welcome. It also means you have no claim if there is a sexual relationship between two consenting parties.
  2. The comment or action has to be offensive to a reasonable person. A person on the outside has to see the offender as being inappropriate. They must take into account the normal relationship between the individuals as well as how the compliment was given. Things can seem different to different people, so what satisfies this criterion is not always cut and dried.
  3. The behavior needs to be serious or consistent. The behavior needs to create a hostile work environment. A boss telling you on one occasion that you have to sleep with them to keep your job is enough for a sexual harassment claim. Seeing sexual content on their computer once for a second or two is probably not going to meet this criterion. You may have a claim if they make less threatening comments over a longer period of time.

What to Do Once You Have Decided You are Being Sexually Harassed

  1. Speak to your harasser. If possible, tell the offending party to stop. You may be able to stop the harassment here, as the person may not have been aware that their actions were inappropriate. At the very least, you will have made it clear that their actions are unwelcome. This will help in future investigations.
  2. Follow your company’s procedures. Follow any steps your company has outlined for sexual harassment claims. You can typically find these in a handbook or website. They will often advise you to report to a manager or HR. You shouldn’t wait too long before reporting an incident. Federal law states that you have 180 days from when an incident occurred to report it. State laws may extend this period.
  3. Write a formal complaint letter. Speaking to someone in person is good, but your complaint should also be in writing. The letter should include a timeline of all events, details on who said what, and whether or not the behavior is ongoing. You should also mention any concerns you have about the situation, such as if turning down your boss will affect your getting a pay raise.
  4. Be prepared to take action. Your issue may be settled if your company HR acts on your complaint. If they don’t, you may need to take alternative actions. You can hire an attorney or file a complaint with the EEOC. You should certainly hire an attorney if you suffer any type of retaliation for your complaint.

What to Do Before Communicating with HR

Here are some measures you should take before filing a complaint as well as some things to do as you communicate with an HR rep.

  • Know your rights and limitations. Research your local state employment rights. If you feel you are facing any type of discrimination, look up what laws are in place. Keep in mind that if you work for a small company with less than 15 employees, your employer is exempt from federal discrimination laws. You should also look up your employer’s policies. This will allow you to be more prepared when talking with HR. Keep in mind that your complaint has to mention actual harassment or discrimination. You don’t have a claim if you feel your boss doesn’t like you or if you don’t like how they micromanage you. These are not illegal actions.
  • Talk to your boss. If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, try having a discussion with your boss. They may not realize they have been unreasonable or offensive. You may be able to settle your issue there and then. At the very least, you can show HR that you tried to solve your problem.
  • Record any incidents. Build a case by documenting any instances of discrimination, harassment, or bullying. Speak with a coworker to see if they are willing to be a witness. Ideally, you will want at least three incidents to show a pattern. However, if they do something dangerous, like assault, report them immediately.
  • Follow the complaint procedure. Make sure to follow any and all protocols for filing a complaint to the letter. You don’t want your claim to be thrown out on procedural grounds.

What to Do When HR is not on Your Side

Here are some steps you should take if you find your HR department to be unhelpful. Even if you are certain that HR won’t help you, you should still file a complaint with them.

This is simply to show that you have taken appropriate steps and document how HR has refused or failed to help.

  • Follow any company protocols. Your company may have a procedure in place on how to handle an issue with HR or how to take an issue beyond them. There may be an anonymous hotline you can call. Follow these procedures and keep records of all communication. You may need to show that you made efforts to solve an issue or show that HR did not help solve your issue.
  • Report any illegal activity. If you are trying to report any behavior that is illegal, you may need to go to an outside government agency. Any complaints you have previously filed can be used as evidence. You should consult an employment lawyer to see if you have a case against your workplace. While there are no specific laws for workplace bullying, you do have a case if you are discriminated against based on something like your race, gender, or age.
  • Find another job. If the behavior you are seeing at work is not illegal, such as your ideas not being considered or your workload being heavy, then you likely don’t have a legal case against your employer. As a last resort, you may have to consider finding another place of employment. Keep in mind that if you are planning any type of lawsuit, it is better to be fired than to quit. Your company can claim that you left on your own and that you faced no real mistreatment.

Questions for Conducting a Hostile Work Environment Investigation

During an investigation, you want everyone to speak the truth and not withhold relevant information. With an open-minded approach, ask the complainant these key questions:

  • What specifically do you believe is hostile in the work environment?
  • How has the behavior negatively affected you and your work?
  • Are any other employees bothered by this behavior?
  • How often did it occur?
  • Who engaged in the behavior? Was it more than one person?
  • Are there any notes, physical evidence, security tapes, or other documentation?
  • What action do you want the company to take?
  • Have you ever reported this incident before?
  • What leads you to believe the behavior happened because you are part of a protected group (based on race, religion, gender, age, etc.)?
  • If it’s about discriminatory comments, ask the complainant:
  • In what context was each statement made?
  • How did you respond to the statements?
  • Who else heard the statements?
  • Has the person said this type of thing to others, besides you?
  • Is there anyone else who may have relevant information?
  • Did the comments make reference to a protected group (based on race, religion, gender, age, etc.)?

Look for gaps or inconsistencies in the information and ask follow-up questions later, if necessary.

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