Managing Hostile Work Environment & Harassment

Written by: Jaqueline Osgood Renouard – BA (Psychology)
Last updated date : February 22, 2023

Working in and managing a hostile work environment and harassment isn’t a walk in the park. It can be challenging to learn how to handle the situation without offending bosses, ruining team productivity, and emotionally burning out. Learning how to report harassment at work is an important keeping employees safe and the company environment smooth sailing. But with clear and respectful communication, along with the tips in this article, you will be able to manage a hostile work environment effectively.

Man boxing to manage anger from a hostile work environment, he has 2 bullies.

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Chapter 1:

What Is Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment affects your day to day working life, as those around you mistreat or harass you, making it difficult to do your job. This can be verbal or physical abuse of some kind.

Examples include jokes, emails, crude pictures, inappropriate touching, pranking, stalking, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. It is any colleague that makes your work unbearable or uncomfortable.

Chapter 2:

What Is Harassment?

Harassment is any form of behaviour, spoken or written, that intimidates or humiliates you. This intimidation or humiliation can happen because of a protected characteristic like someone’s gender, race, religion, etc. There is also sexual harassment when a colleague or boss is making unwanted advances toward you.

In today’s world of modern technology, harassment can extend to social media, email, text messages, and phone calls. So, keep reading to understand it and learn how to report harassment at work.

Undervalued or Unappreciated
A sign of a hostile work environment is if your employer or team doesn’t appreciate the work you put in on a regular basis.
Constant Conflict
Regular arguments or physical fights is a sign of a hostile work environment

Even if the conflict is subtle, like teasing someone based on their age, this still creates a sense of hostility towards someone.

Being Ignored
If you’ve spoken to your boss about feeling harassed and then your shifts change, and you’re no longer involved in big meetings, this creates a sense of a hostile work environment.

It can also be when a colleague ignores your presence in meetings or around the office.

Burnout is a sign that you are emotionally, mentally, or physically overworked. If your workload keeps piling higher than everyone else’s and you’re working overtime without being asked, this could be a sign of a hostile work environment.
When a bully at work tries to intimidate and humiliate individuals or groups of people, this is usually a sign that this needs to be resolved.
Offensive Messages or Images
Sharing any offensive images or messages in any format at work could lead to a hostile work environment.
Discrimination is when someone is underpaid, let go, or other employment actions because of their protected characteristic.
Sexual Harassment
Lastly, sexual harassment is when unwanted sexual advances make someone feel uncomfortable.

Chapter 3:

Harassment Laws

Laws on harassment state that the behaviour has to happen more than once and cause a feeling of distress or alarm. For example, one harmful tweet might not be enough in a court of law, but two tweets, or one message and some verbal comments could be.

Usually, the laws on harassment change from place to place. Also, learning how to file a harassment report at work will change from company to company. But in general, a court will assess whether each incident creates a hostile work environment. Some examples of the incidents of harassment are:

  • Verbal comment
  • Threat
  • A text
  • Answer message
  • An email
  • Stalking behaviours
  • Damage to your property
  • Acts of violence
  • False accusations

Chapter 4:

Managing Hostile Work Environments

The most effective way to manage a hostile work environment is to act quickly. Learn to get the right people involved, training all staff to be kind to others, and creating policies around that. In these short four steps:
  1. Address the issue
  2. Involve the correct people – HR, Line Manager, etc
  3. Train Employees
  4. Create Healthier Policies

Chapter 5:

The Affect of Harassment on Mental Health

Being in a hostile work environment and dealing with harassment can severely affect our mental health. Symptoms like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, high blood pressure, and more can develop.

When someone is being harassed, it triggers the fight or flight response in our brain, which releases stress into the body.

When harassment affects our self-esteem or our self-worth, it can trigger depression. Employees can begin to feel hopeless when they see no way out of a hostile work environment. They can start to lose the joy of doing their job and feel tired and low spirited.

It’s important to note that victims of harassment tend to think it is their fault, that there is something wrong with them. Know that that is not the truth of the situation. It’s that those harassing you are exerting some kind of control over you.

Other effects seen in employees is those that express irritation and anger. Sometimes victims of harassment bottle the feelings, and it is expressed in anger or becoming passive-aggressive. This anger, if it continues over time, can lead to high blood pressure and increases anxiety.

Chapter 6:

Is Discrimination the Same as Harassment?

The biggest difference between discrimination and harassment is that discrimination involves an employment action, while harassment is just general mistreatment. Of course, both involve mistreating someone due to their protected characteristic (age, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.). Still, discrimination is usually in the hiring process with salary and other employment actions.

Harassment is general bullying, like verbally or physically mistreating someone because of their protected characteristic.

Chapter 7:

What to Do if You Are Harassed at Work?

It’s never easy to deal with being harassed at work. It can cause us to feel emotionally drained, unwilling to go to work, and scared. But the best way to tackle any difficult situation is to communicate how you feel. Whether that’s communicating with the person harassing you, with trusted co-workers, or the HR team.
4 Examples of What You Can Do:
  • Politely tell the person, “the way you say this makes me feel very uncomfortable”, explaining how you feel in detail.
  • If the behaviour continues, then seek advice from those you trust around you. If they notice the same behaviours, then you can take that information to HR.
  • Sometimes you can tell a line manager or HR, they want to see their teams thrive, and they will want to help.
  • If none of the previous steps are possible or they don’t work, you should consider looking at the law, what evidence you need, and how to get it.

Chapter 8:

How to Resolve Hostile Work Environment

You Can Control Your Actions
We can discuss things with others, but we can’t change the behaviours of others. We can control our reaction to it though, remaining calm and separating the person from their hostile behaviour.
Learning is a Tool
Use this opportunity as a tool to learn about yourself and how to manage in a hostile work environment. Instead of letting it consume you, learn how to deal with it with the points below.
Research Company Policy
What is the company policy on harassment and bullying? What don’t they tolerate? And what actions do they advise you to take if you do suffer from any hostility? What do they say on how to report harassment at work?
Follow Procedures for Complaints
You can also find their procedure for filing a complaint in the policies. If you’re suffering, the best thing to do is discuss it with the person first, and then file a complaint if their behaviour towards you hasn’t stopped.
Document, Document, Document Everything
It’s wise to keep the unsolicited emails, messages, or other proof to hand. Keeping documentation could help down the road if you need to file a claim.
Assistance & Allies
Seek out the help of HR. Although the process can be long when HR is involved, and HR doesn’t always feel comfortable enough. HR is there to help you. You can also discuss the issue with others on your team who feel the same, if you’re all being mistreated. Together your voice will more likely be heard.
Working together with your allies and with those we conflict with can sometimes be resolved with communication. But, if it can’t, then the next option might be for you.
File a Claim
Armed with documentation that you filed a complaint, spoke to HR, and tried to resolve the situation – and yet you are still working in a hostile environment – time to contact a lawyer and see whether the proof you have is enough to make a claim.

Chapter 9:

What Employers Can Do to Prevent Harassment

Begin by training all employees on equality and diversity, alongside anti-harassment training. Then, walk them through previous cases of harassment and hostile work environments and how that affects the company and its employees.

If a company has money to invest, the best idea is to get a third party coach to help get to the heart of what is creating a toxic work environment. The reason is, although many employees are safe in human resources departments, many don’t trust HR. For example, one survey across technology companies discovered that 70% of workers don’t trust HR. So, a third party could be the bridge between the company and its employees.

Then work on creating a policy that furthers the aim to create a safe workspace for all. The policy should include everything in detail. For example, it should explain how workers can file a complaint. It should have different reporting channels to make it easy.

A good policy will also include different approaches to dealing with a hostile work environment. There should be clearly stated that harassment is not tolerated, that victimization isn’t tolerated either. Victimisation being when someone speaks up about harassment, they will be shamed or punished for doing so.

There should also be advice and services that will help victims of harassment in the policy. Creating a culture where people feel able to come forward and resolve these issues is incredibly worthwhile.

Chapter 10:

How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment?

Gather the evidence you need to bring to a lawyer is step number one. Sometimes it can be difficult to prove a hostile work environment, especially if it is verbal. But having witnesses write statements can help prove to a lawyer and court that it’s happening.

A jury will believe your claim if you can back that up with the formal complaints to human resources and proof that they were aware of their behaviour. So it’s all about making the people and company involved aware of the situation in advance and allowing them the opportunity to fix it.

Chapter 11:

Possible Health Effects From Harassment

Harassment and hostile work environments don’t just affect mental health. It can affect overall health from our sleep, muscle repair, concentration, and more. That’s why it’s important to resolve these situations as quickly as possible.
Examples of Harassment Effecting Health:
  • Poor sleep
  • Headaches
  • Problems Concentrating
  • Stomach aches
  • Burnout

Chapter 12:

Turning Hostile Work Environments Into Peaceful Work Environments

Creating a peaceful work environment begins at the top. Leaders need to take the information from employees and work to create a culture that respects honesty. They need to acknowledge the issues and toxic behaviours that happen. Teaching staff how to report harassment at work and encouraging them to do so, will help create a safe space for employees. By learning to listen to employees concerns and act quickly to resolve any mistreatment, CEO’s can continue towards their goals. Companies should be rooting out those who don’t align with the simple rules of treating everyone with dignity and respect. Teaching leaders to be aware of the signs, and even the little signs like office gossip, micromanaging, aggressive competition, negativity, cliques, and teasing. Leaders should be able to spot these and start discussing with teams and individuals how to resolve them. Repairing toxic culture and hostile work environments should be built into the organisation’s structure and culture. Leaders should model this and CEO’s, as actions always speak louder than words. Leaders set the tone for the work environment, so let’s create a peaceful and joyful one.

"Structured and engaging course" Joan

69 sections

6-Weeks Self-Paced

  • Educational Content
  • Quizzes
  • Self-reflection material
  • Suggestions & feedback
  • Worksheet, tips & tools to use

$9.00 $12.00

25% discount