Signs of a Hostile Work Environment

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Hearing the words “hostile work environment” is enough to strike fear in the heart of any business owner. Immediate thoughts of state and federal regulators showing up at your door with accusations of harassment and discrimination and all the unsavory byproducts and labels that could result, send shivers up the spine.

If you aren’t familiar with what constitutes a hostile workplace, you should take steps to understand it. It’s important for you, the owner, to identify the elements of a hostile workplace and work to legally eliminate them immediately. Having a clear company policy will go a long way in protecting you and your company. Speak with your attorney and know your responsibility going forward.

What is the definition of a hostile work environment? In a hostile workplace, one or several employees feel threatened in some way by management or other employees. According to the employment mediation website Mediate, a hostile workplace is also an environment in which abusive conduct prevents an employee from doing her job.

Many employees mistakenly believe that just having a bad supervisor or not getting a company car translates into a hostile environment, but that isn’t true. Certain legal criteria must be met, but not getting a promotion or having to put up with a rude coworker don’t count.

A true hostile environment is created by actions, communication and behavior that make doing the employee’s job impossible. In other words, the alleged behavior has changed the customary and reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment for the employee. Your employee must be suffering from abuse regularly and it must be intentional and hurtful enough to cause distress and interference with her ability to do her job.

It could be inappropriate, rude or obnoxious behavior, or sexually explicit jokes from a coworker. It could be a supervisor who verbally assaults an employee about her religion or race. Even if the behavior is disguised as joking, it could still result in a hostile environment.

In addition, there are anti-harassment laws that cover hostile work environments. If one of your employees is creating a hostile situation for another, this is harassment and it is covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The actions, communication or behavior could prove discriminatory as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Harassment and discrimination statutes and legislation focus on the fact that your employee is a member of a protected class, such as her race, gender, religion or disability.

One of the surest ways to avoid a hostile work environment is to hire employees who will be likely to succeed and thrive within your business model. Pay careful attention to prospective employees’ personalities and work ethics that fit your environment. Consider accommodating your employees to avoid a hostile work place, such as time off for family issues or a flexible work schedule. Flexible scheduling goes a long way to show your employees that you are in touch with their personal needs.

In addition, review your own attitude with your employees. Be willing to assist your employees’ growth and success and be ready to tackle issues when they arise. Communicating with your employees is crucial if you want to avoid a hostile workplace. Newsletters, memos, company-wide meetings and personal communication lead to an open environment. Employment agreements could prove a useful tool to clarify tolerances among staff. Creating company policies on how to deal with employees who fall short of expectations and job goals opens a channel of communication.

If, however, problems do occur, you simply can’t afford to look the other way. An employee who experiences a hostile environment and has attempted to make the behavior stop without success will most likely end up at your door. You then have the opportunity to investigate the complaint and eliminate the behavior. Acting quickly and decisively will prove to your employees that you consider this an important situation.

On the other hand, if your employee comes to you with a complaint and you fail to resolve it, she can file a complaint with the EEOC or your state’s employment commission. She could also file a civil lawsuit against you.

Sexual harassment, racial discrimination and intimidation among employees are heavy burdens for any business owner to bear, but following certain guidelines will bring back order to your business and rebuild a productive workplace. ■

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Recognize and Prevent
Here are the legal requirements for a hostile work environment:
– The actions or behavior must discriminate against a protected class such as age, religion, disability or race.
– The actions must be persistent and not infrequent.
– The problem escalates as it targets an employee, continues in duration and does not stop even with employer intervention.
– The hostile communication, behavior and actions must be serious enough in nature to interfere with the employee’s current job performance or future with the company.
– If the employer did not take sufficient action, the employer can be liable for the hostile work environment creation.