Hostile Work Environment: How to Tell, What to Do

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Woman at Work


Bonnie Marcus M.Ed, CEC
Bonnie Marcus M.Ed, CEC10
• A hostile work environment includes conduct that would be "intimidating, hostile or offensive to reasonable people" according to the EEOC.
• In some cases, this behavior is unlawful, and you can sue your employer.
• Signs of a hostile work environment include no room for growth, being underpaid and being discriminated against.
• Your options are either to leave your job or to make it work at your current job.
If you hate going to work in the morning, it’s a clear sign that something is wrong. But what's the problem? Is it that you don’t like your job or is it that you can’t tolerate the work environment?
If you hate going to work, you’re not alone. According to Gallup, a whopping 70% of us don’t feel engaged at work. And this is literally killing us. Dragging yourself every day to a job you can barely tolerate affects your health and well-being. You’re stressed. You don’t sleep. You get sick more often because of your job. It’s obvious that you need to do something to fix this. After all, you spend most of your waking hours at work!

What qualifies as a hostile work environment?

According to The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "To be unlawful, the [hostile] conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people. Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance."

Can you sue your employer for hostile work environment harassment? 

Yes, you can sue your employer for a hostile work environment. You must prove, however, that you were the victim of offensive, unwelcome and pervasive conduct. You must also prove that it affected the terms and conditions of your employment. For instance, if your boss is verbally abusing or threatening you in any way, you are working in a hostile work environment, and it is affecting your ability to do your job, since you may be frightened to even go to work.
A hostile work environment is created when anyone in the workplace commits any type of harassment, and this goes for a co-worker, a supervisor or manager, a contractor, client, vendor or visitor. To sue, you will need to file a complaint with the EEOC, which will investigate and issue you a "right to sue" notice if they find the claim has merit. You may also wish to consult an employment attorney.

9 signs you may be working in a hostile work environment

Do you find yourself saying any of the following statements? (Keep in mind that not all of them mean you're in a hostile work environment, but they could still be indications that it's time to leave.)

1. It’s a dead-end job with no opportunity for advancement.

Nothing kills your motivation more than knowing that you’re stuck in a position and can’t find a way out. Perhaps you’ve tried to move up or find a lateral move with more interesting work at your company, but it never materializes. This squelches your enthusiasm and over time, you resent the work and the company. You feel trapped.

2. My work is boring.

You’re tired of busywork. You think, "I’m better than this." You’ve requested different projects but have been told they’re not in your job description. There’s no opportunity to try new things, be creative, or showcase your skills. You feel marginalized, and it’s affecting your self-esteem. You're beginning to question your ability and you can barely tolerate your to-do list.

3. I don’t get any acknowledgment or credit for my work.

If you work hard and your work is valued by the company, it feels good and motivates you to do your best work. If the opposite is the case, all your hard work goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Even worse, others could take credit for your work. That destroys your ambition and you begin to lose respect for yourself and your work. You’ve addressed this issue, but it falls on deaf ears.

4. Everyone is out for themselves.

There’s no collaboration or support from your boss or colleagues. Everyone has their own agenda and disregards your request to be more transparent and candid. People are always jockeying for the best position for themselves, including your boss who has never advocated for you. They have their own agenda and you’re not part of it. This cut-throat environment is toxic and it undermines your success. You constantly walk on eggshells as you try to navigate the hidden politics. It robs you of your energy and you notice that you’ve become more cynical and critical of others. Everyone gossips and it’s cliquey. It’s hard to separate yourself from this ugliness.

5. There are unrealistic expectations.

Your company has unrealistic demands about the workload and deadlines. The expectation is that you will be available 24/7 for emails and phone calls will put in whatever hours it takes to complete your projects.  Now, you’re exhausted and burned out. It’s a challenge to get approval for a flexible schedule without mountains of red tape which you don’t have the energy to wade through. You see the quality of your work suffering as you are overwhelmed with the workload.

6. The boss’s way is the only way.

There’s only one way to do things. The only accepted way to do things is what the boss says. The boss is always right and never make mistakes. No one is interested in hearing any other suggestions or ideas from you or anyone else. People who agree with the boss get promoted and people who even politely disagree are demoted or fired. This is called wrongful termination. This type of toxic workplace relationship with a supervisor results in mediocrity, and you never considered yourself mediocre. Is that what it takes to survive here?

7. I’m micromanaged to death.

You have little if any freedom to do your job. You’re micromanaged, and every step of every procedure is spelled out for you. When you have an innovative idea or suggestion for improving things, your thoughts are disregarded. Your boss goes on vacation and redoes all your work when she returns. You notice you’re beginning to lose touch with your creativity.

8. I’m underpaid.

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, women are paid 80 cents to the dollar of what a man gets paid, and it’s even less if you’re a woman of color. And chances are you’re working harder than your male colleagues who have the freedom to schmooze after work when you have family responsibilities. This often has nothing to do with your performance. It’s gender bias plain and simple. It isn’t fair, and when you feel that you aren’t being treated fairly due to your gender, your frustration builds over time and you begin to hate your job and your company.

9. I'm discriminated against.

Although legislation exists in more than 10 states (including Washington as HB 2142 and SB 6622), there isn't a federal or state law that explicitly and generally outlaws “bullying” at work or “hostile” work environments, according to Seattle Business Magazine. Rather, laws such as Washington’s Law Against Discrimination, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, American With Disabilities Act, Equal Pay Act and more prohibit discrimination and harassment in most workplaces.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. It generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state and local governments. In short: it's an anti-discrimination law. According to Title VII, no one (coworkers, managers, clients or otherwise) can discriminate against your sexual orientation, national origin, race, religion or anything else, and if you do see or feel discrimination at work, you can report it or, ultimately, contact a hostile work environment attorney to fight any of this hostile work environment harassment with a legal claim. Everyone is entitled to an equal employment opportunity with protected civil rights regardless of their employment status.
It is, of course, important to know what constitutes discrimination. "Petty slights, annoyances and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious)" won't rise to the level of illegality, according to the EEOC. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that is "intimidating, hostile or offensive to reasonable people."
"Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures and interference with work performance," the EEOC explains, noting that, a reasonable person should agree. "Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following: The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker or a non-employee. The victim does not have to be the person harassed but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim."

2 ways to manage a hostile work environment

So what is it? Do you hate your job, your company or both?
Here’s an important question to answer: Would you love doing the work you’re currently doing somewhere else?
I had a session with a client about this just this morning and she told me she could see herself doing the same work she’s doing now and loving it in a different environment. She was able to separate the work from the company by answering that question for herself.

1. Look for a new job

If it’s the work you hate and there's no other opportunity within your company, the solution is the same as working in a bad environment. You need to leave. Over time, hating your company and work will affect your health and your career.
If you like your work, look for similar job descriptions at other companies. In most industries, you can find similar roles elsewhere through networking, combing job boards, or using other job search tools.
Do your homework before accepting another position. Ask to interview women in the company at your level and above. Make sure you have good information about the culture before you take the leap. But taking the leap is critical before your self-esteem is so damaged that making the move is impossible to comprehend.
Occasionally, a job interview can be a hostile environment, so also be sure to look out for obvious signs of hostility in the interview for your new job, too. You wouldn't want to have left one hostile environment just to waltz right into another one. For example, an employer might ask you inappropriate or illegal interview questions, such as if you're planning on starting a family or if you're married. Before an interview, know what questions employers are and are not allowed to ask you.
Federal and state laws prohibit prospective employers from asking questions that are not related to the job for which they are hiring. In other words, employers should not ask about any of the following unless it specifically relates to the job requirements (otherwise, it's considered discriminatory): race, color, sex, religion, national origin, birthplace, age, disability, marital/family status, salary (some locations).

2. Make it work at your current job

If you don't want to leave, you should at least consider talking to someone in human resources about your issues. You might want to speak to your company’s HR department for advice on setting up a meeting or mediated conversation between you and whomever it is that's making your work environment unbearable.
That all said, no employees should ever have to have experienced a hostile workplace, whether that means discrimination, sexual harassment, offensive conduct from a supervisor or a coworker, or any kind of workplace harassment in the first place. A hostile work environment is not healthy and your work performance and life in general will suffer because of it. If you're a reasonable person, you will be taken seriously.

The bottom line

If you're in a hostile work environment, you may want to look for new employment or at least speak to a supervisor within your company to talk about how to improve the situation. But you also may want to consider reporting the hostility in order to help the next employee who will take your place if you do indeed leave and in order to help yourself cope with the aftermath of the effects.
The law related to a hostile work environment is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If you feel like your employment rights have been violated, you can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC by mail, in person or by telephone within 180 days of the incident with some exceptions.
Then, if the EEOC is unable to solve your workplace problem within six months, or if you feel as if your case is not handled as well as you'd anticipated, you can contact a lawyer to discuss other possibilities thereafter. It's up to you to take these actions, especially if your problem is severe or pervasive. Fortunately, the employment law is on your side.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker focused on women's advancement in the workplace. A former corporate executive and CEO, Bonnie is the author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, and co-author of Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women's Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage.