Are you suffering in a hostile work environment? Here’s what you need to know

The term “hostile work environment” sounds like a straightforward concept, but protected classes and special cases can confuse those looking to file harassment reports.

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While most people trust that they’ll know a hostile work environment when they feel it, identifying one is actually much more complex than you’d think. Here are nine facts to help you understand what a hostile work environment is and what to do if you find yourself in one.

Hostile work environment is a legal term

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”


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Harassment in the workplace becomes illegal if the offensive conduct is a condition of continued employment or if the behavior becomes pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile or abusive work environment.  Isolated incidents, unless extremely serious, are not considered illegal.

The legal definition of harassment also states that the conduct must create an environment that would be intimidating, hostile or offensive to the reasonable person.

Only protected classes can file a Charge of Discrimination under Title VII

The legal definition of harassment outlines the classes that are protected against a hostile work environment, which include race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and genetic information.

Harassment regarding things such as weight or appearance don’t belong to any of the protected classes, but may fall under one of the  EEOC definitions in certain cases.

The law also protects employees against retaliation

While retaliation is not considered a protected class, Title IX contains anti-discrimination laws that prohibit harassment against employees for filing a charge. The law not only protects the employee who files the complaint, but also the employee who speaks out about discrimination during an investigation.

Additionally, an employee is protected against retaliation for opposing employment practices that they believe discriminate against individuals.

The difference between a hostile work environment and a toxic work environment

“Everybody has experienced some sort of toxicity in the work environment over the course of their career,” said Josh Taylor, an attorney and lead content strategist at Smokeball, a legal management software company. Toxicity in the workplace includes unlikable or rude coworkers.

While toxic workplaces aren’t ideal, they’re also not illegal. “It becomes illegal if you are being targeted for your protected class under the law,” Taylor said. Annoyances, slights and one-off events are not considered illegal.

What you should do if you think you’re in a hostile work environment

If you feel that a certain harassing behavior will become repetitive, Taylor recommends talking to an attorney. While he warns not to pay an expensive retainer early in the process, it’s a good idea to keep a legal expert in the loop.

Employees should also note that there is a statute of limitations on these types of incidents. In most situations, employees have 180 days to file from the act of discrimination, however, there are exceptions to that rule.

Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, recommends always reporting the situation to your company’s human resource department before taking it to the EEOC.

Why you should report a hostile work environment work to HR first

While a one-off incident can be indicative of the start of a hostile work environment, your case won’t hold much water if you attempt to bring it to the EEOC. Instead, for a few different reasons, you should report the incident to HR before taking legal action.

The first reason one should always bring a situation to HR initially is because the issue could actually be squashed right then and there. 

“Any human resources person worth their salt should be trying to build an environment of openness,” Taylor said. An effective HR department has procedures in place to handle this type of complaint. 

The second reason why an issue should be brought to HR first is because this provides a solid record of how long the issue has been occurring. In these types of legal cases, it’s critical that there is well-documented evidence of how long the problem has persisted.

“There’s only one way to prove that something is pervasive and consistent…and that’s to have a record of it,” Taylor said. 

What you should do if HR won’t listen to your hostile work environment complaint

If HR doesn’t take action after you submitted a complaint, and you believe your situation classifies as harassment, you should file a report with the EEOC. An individual can submit a charge online through the EEOC Public Portal, in person at an EEOC office, by mail, or over the phone by calling 1-800-669-4000.

How leaders can know if their company has a hostile work environment

“Having clear policies and procedures around what to do is really important so that everyone in the organization understands how to take that first step,” Kanouse said.

It’s also important that employers consistently monitor how their employees are feeling in their workplace. One way to “take the company temperature” is to send out employee engagement surveys. In order to receive completely honest answers, employers must ensure that the surveys remain anonymous.

A new method that many large companies have started using is social media monitoring. While tracking customers opinions on social media has been in practice for years, many larger companies have also began scanning Twitter feeds for employee opinions. Employers use tools such as G2, Hootsuite, Sprout Social, Mention and Brandwatch to monitor what employees are saying about the company on social media, which is one creative way for employers to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in the workplace.


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