Work + Life Balance
6 Signs You're in a Hostile Work Environment—And How To Get Out!
Feel like you're stuck in a hostile workplace? Chances are that you're 100 percent right and your workplace is toxic. Here's what to do next.
Photoby Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
A hostile work environment is a toxic work environment—but one that’s ratcheted upseveral notches.
It’s more than havinga boss who doesn’t listen well ora coworker who’s gossipy (though those problems can be difficult to deal with as well).
Rather, a hostile work environment is a workplace that consistently doles out harassment and discrimination—to the point where work becomes intimidating or abusive.
According to attorney Brad Nakase, ahostile work environment is “a workplace that intimidates employees and makes them feel uncomfortable and/or scared due to unwelcome conduct.”
As an employee, you have legal rights that protect you from being targeted by or witnessing this kind of behavior, but it’s important to know what constitutes harassment and what is considered a “petty incident” or a one-off offensive slight.
If you’re experiencing any sort of bad workplace behavior, you may wonder if you’re in a hostile environment, legally speaking.
And it can be hard to determine what constitutes this since the lines of toxicity to straight-up hostility can be a bit blurry. Below are six signs that you’re in an outwardly hostile workplace.
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,workplace harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”
While any harassment is of course unethical and unkind, what takes harassment and makes it unlawful, according to the EEOC, is when:
- The person being harassed (or witnesses to the harassment) must endure the behavior in order to stay employed.
- The harassment is “severe or pervasive enough” that the environment would be considered intimidating or abusive to an average person.
6 Signs of a Hostile Work Environment
If you’re wondering whether bullying at work is technically illegal or just someone being mean, here are the red flags that you’re dealing with more than just bad behavior—that it’s likely straight-up workplace hostility that may be illegal.
Sign #1: It's a toxic work environment.
A toxic work environment doesn’t mean you’re necessarily in a hostile work environment. But a hostile work environment means you’re in a toxic workplace. Make sense?
In other words, if your workplace is toxic—if you’re experiencing or witnessing bullying, gossip, exclusion, insults, miscommunication, or any of the other telltale signs of a toxic work environment—your spidey senses should kick into gear.
Toxic behavior can quickly slide into outwardly hostile behavior. If you’re seeing these signs, start to watch for hostility.
What to Do:We’ve said it over and over again, but data is your friend in any situation like this. This is when it’s important to start taking stock of what’s happening and start taking careful notes about each incident.
It’s one thing if someone makes an unkind remark about a colleague’s work in a stressful situation (still not cool, obviously, but likely not considered hostile). It’s another if you start to notice consistent bullying or discriminatory actions based on sex, age, color, religion, or other similar factors.
Date each incident and provide as much detail as possible. Your notes will matter here, as they may be considered evidence of hostile behavior, should the situation escalate.
At this point, we also recommend immediately speaking with your manager and/or with human resources. If you’re noticing toxic behavior enough to record it, it’s also time to report it. Do your due diligence.
Sign #2: The hostile workplace behavior happens consistently.
The EEOC’s explanation of workplace harassment specifically notes that the harassment must be “consistent” and “pervasive” to be considered illegal. “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality,” their definition notes.
This means that a one-off incident in which a supervisor makes a discriminatory remark toward an employee may not be considered workplace hostility, in a legal sense. (Though we’d still recommend reporting this to your supervisor or HR).
Watch for this behavior to happen consistently over a period of time.
What to Do:You probably guessed it...more note-taking and data collecting. If you can prove it’sconsistent, you can prove it’s pervasive. Thorough records of the incidents you’re experiencing or witnessing will help show that harassment is taking place. And, again, reporting the behavior to the appropriate parties is important here too.
Sign #3: The hostile behavior becomes aggressive.
Bad workplace behavior doesn’t have to be physically aggressive to be a sign of workplace hostility (though if you’re seeing that, certainly report it). Aggression can look like verbal attacks, spiteful comments, or cruelty toward someone in general.
Aggression will likely look like standard bullying behavior at work. If you’re seeing that, you’re likely in a hostile workplace.
What to Do:If your physical safety or the safety of another person is at risk, immediately intervene, in the safest way possible. This may be one of those rare moments in whichrage-quitting and walking out is okay.
This is also the prime time to speak to HR and consider reporting the behavior to proper authorities (which we’ll discuss below).
Sign #4: The hostile behavior is discriminatory.
Per the EEOC’s definition of harassment, bad behavior must violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, or the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
A telltale sign of a hostile work environment is if the behavior you’re experiencing or witnessing is discriminatory based on “race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), or genetic information (including family history).”
If you hear a manager speaking poorly about an older colleague, experience unfair treatmentbecause of pregnancy, overhear racist or sexist remarks, or experience gender discrimination, you may be in a hostile work environment.
This would also look like sexual harassment of any sort, including lude comments or explicit material circulating.
What to Do:Speak up. If you notice that this is happening, immediately go to your manager (assuming they’re not the perpetrator). If they are, go to HR—with your notes about the incident(s) in hand.
Even if the behavior doesn’t rise to the level of true harassment, it’s still likely grounds for intervention.
Resources for BIPOC Community:
- Live Another Day: Extensive information on mental health and substance use resources for People of Color. Their mission is equal access to life-saving resources.
- Detox Local:An excellent resource that features abundant information including mental health and substance use resources specifically for the AAPI (American Asian and Pacific Islander) community.
Sign #5: The behavior disrupts the ability to work or the ability to move forward in one's career.
If the behavior is so bad that it’s interfering with work, it’s probably considered hostile behavior.
For example, if you’re being bullied by a colleague or supervisor to the point that you’re unable to concentrate on your work, that’s likely harassment.
Similarly, if you’re worried about being able to move up the ladder in your career because of a supervisor who constantly berates you and causes emotional distress, that’s likely harassment.
What to Do:If this is the case, it’s likely time to speak with HR and then jump ship and quit. No job is worth being constantly berated or victimized. Moving up the ladder isn’t worth sacrificing your mental health. You may also wish to report this behavior to proper authorities.
Sign #6: The victim of the harassing behavior feels stuck.
Finally, a sign of a hostile workplace is feeling like you can’t get out.
Your colleague or boss may make you feel as if you won’t be able to find another role, that your skills are obsolete, or usegaslighting techniques to make you question your own experiences or what you’ve been witness to. All of these are major red flags.
What to Do:First, realize that you’re never stuck. We realize that our jobs are often tied to our health insurance, that they’re our sources of income, and that these are things not to be taken lightly. If you’re feeling bullied and afraid to quit your position, however, it’s time to speak with management about your concerns and then do your best to prepare to get out.
This may look like spending some time preparing your finances, looking for a promising new job, or speaking with a lawyer about how to best proceed.
Examples of Hostile Behavior at Work
There are all sorts of hostile work situations. That said, the EEOC’s definition of what rises to the level of illegality includes pervasive discriminatory behaviors. Here are a few examples of behaviors that would be considered hostile.
- Sexual harassment like sexually suggestive behavior, showing photos, unwanted physical touching, making sexual jokes, or invading someone’s personal space
- Discriminatory, racist comments or jokes, or ethnic slurs
- Consistently commenting on someone’s appearance
- Group shaming of a single person
- Sabotage of a person’s work
- Unwelcome touching of any kind
- Threatening behavior
It’s also important to remember that hostile work environments aren’t limited to hostility in an in-person situation. Examples of a hostile remote work environment could include:
- Forming an online group that excludes a colleague for the sake of shaming or bullying
- Posting photos of a colleague online
- Online bullying through chat or social media platforms
- Sabotage of someone’s work online
How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment
It’s tricky to prove whether your workplace is hostile or simply toxic. In the event that the situation has become severe enough to escalate matters, you’ll want to do a few things.
First, you must have done your due diligence.
This means you’ve collected data about the behavior you believe to be hostile, and you’ve asked your manager and HR to address it. You’ll want to document your discussions with your boss and HR as well. Any tangible proof you have is helpful.
At that point, your employer has been made aware of the situation, and it’s their duty to solve the problem. In fact, the employer may be liable for allowing the behavior in the first place, so it can be detrimental for them if they don’t intervene at this point.
This may mean termination of the offending employee, or they may put the employee on a behavior correction plan. Either way, this will hopefully solve the problem. And note thatthe EEOC protects employees from retaliation for filing a complaint with an employer.
If it doesn’t solve the issue, however, and you’ve decided to take legal action because of a severe case, you’ll again want to compile lots of data.
You’ll need physical evidence of the discriminatory harassment (this might look like screenshots or photos), written and dated records of the interactions, and witness statements, and your next step would be toconsult an attorney such as hostile work environment attorneys.
Which three examples are most likely to contribute to a hostile work environment? ›
- Sexual / racial harassment. These are two things that always create a hostile environment for employees. ...
- Discrimination of any kind. ...
- Consistent aggressiveness. ...
- Ridiculing or victimization. ...
- Lots of complaints and threats for punishment. ...
- That feeling you get.
- Find a support group. ...
- Find a way to unwind. ...
- Stay positive. ...
- Meditate. ...
- Tune everything out. ...
- Leave work issues at work. ...
- Avoid office gossip. ...
- Look for the humor in every situation.
If you strongly believe that your workplace is hostile, file an official internal complaint to your human resource department. You may think that this can get you in trouble or that the company may act against you, but know that federal law protects employees who file such complaints.How do I explain why I left a toxic work environment? ›
- Instead of saying: My [company] has a toxic work culture. ...
- You could say: It's really important for me to be around people who love their job and believe in the mission of the company. ...
- Instead of saying: My manager is always standing over my shoulder micromanaging every little assignment.
A constructive discharge claim means that the worker quits or resigns because they are being harassed. If the employee quits because of the employer's unlawful discrimination, the employer may be responsible just as if they fired the employee, because the harassment forced the employee to quit.How do you know if your job is toxic? ›
- There are no boundaries around work. ...
- People don't trust each other. ...
- There's no room to make mistakes. ...
- People treat each other with contempt. ...
- The interpersonal relationships aren't healthy. ...
- There is no support for employee growth. ...
- People frequently feel gaslighted.
A toxic work environment can cause PTSD. Period. When psychologists first became aware of the set of symptoms that they later described as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they assigned it to individuals that had been through extreme trauma, such as soldiers coming home from the warzone, or victims of crime.How do I leave a toxic job without notice? ›
If possible, inform them in person, but a phone call, a note or an email are all better than nothing. People who have a good relationship with their manager might also consider sharing some information about why they are leaving without notice.How do I say I left my job because of management? ›
Choose your words wisely and be diplomatic in how you talk about your dismissal. “I was let go after a change in management.” Or “I was not a great fit for the position as _____ because my strengths are _______ (steer back to positive).” Should I talk about why I quit my last job?How do you prove hostile work environment? ›
The crux of proving a hostile work environment case is evidence of the harassment. You should preserve any e-mails or voicemails that demonstrate harassing language. These communications do not have to take place at home, as any harassing treatment that extends from the workplace to your home qualifies as evidence.
How do you tell if your boss is sabotaging you? ›
- Your boss is leaving you out. ...
- Your boss is making you jump through hoops. ...
- Talk to your boss. ...
- Control what's within your control. ...
- Consider your options and put yourself first. ...
- Keep a record. ...
- Reach Out.
What Exactly Is the Average Settlement Amount for Harassment Lawsuits? On average, harassment lawsuits can settle for around $50,000. Remember, every harassment case is different. Yours could end up with a lot more depending on how severe your case is and how extensive your damages are.When should you quit a job? ›
- It's no longer encouraging your growth. ...
- You've achieved what you set out to achieve. ...
- You actively look for ways to avoid your job. ...
- You regularly approach work with exhaustion, burnout, or dread. ...
- It's causing you to develop bad habits. ...
- Your workplace has become unhealthy.
Leaving an employer because you got a better offer from a different company is a valid reason to quit your job. Whether they offered a better salary, benefits, or just a good working arrangement, you can use this as a reason for answering the “why did you leave your job” interview question.What are intolerable working conditions? ›
Working conditions might become intolerable through insults, humiliation, demotion, or other forms of improper discrimination against the employee. As in wrongful termination, the employer must violate the employment contract or public law by targeting the employee.How do I say I left my job due to harassment? ›
If asked why you cannot give your previous employer as a reference, you can say something like: “I left voluntarily because it was not a great culture fit. I loved the work I was doing, but my experience there was not ideal and I'm not confident that they would give the best summary of my job performance.”What does the EEOC consider a hostile work environment? ›
Some types of qualifying hostile behaviors might include the following: Behaviors that cause physical discomfort or pain. Slurs, racial epithets, curses, and other language directed towards a protected group. Behaviors that result in adverse employment actions.What is unfair treatment at work? ›
Unfair treatment can take many forms. It can include illegal harassment and discrimination based on a “protected characteristic” such as age, disability, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, color, nationality, or sex.What are red flags at work? ›
A lack of teamwork in the workplace is a huge red flag. Without teamwork, collaboration fails, workplace relationships crumble, and business tends to take a hit. Customers can absolutely tell if employees have sour attitudes. Assess whether your team reflects any of these characteristics.How do you leave a toxic job without burning bridges? ›
- Practice discretion during your job search.
- Prepare a letter of resignation and set a final day.
- Tell your boss first.
- Work until the last day.
- Prepare for an exit interview.
Which of these is an example of a hostile work environment? ›
Harassment, inappropriate sexual conduct, discrimination, violence victimization and many other kinds of offensive behavior is considered a hostile work environment. Happening consistently or purposefully, all of these things will create a hostile work environment.Which of these situations would be considered a hostile work environment? ›
To constitute a hostile work environment, the behavior must discriminate against a protected group of people. That includes conduct based on race, color, religion, gender, pregnancy, national origin, age, disability or genetic information.Which of the following is an example of hostile environment harassment? ›
Examples of hostile environment harassment, such as sexual harassment, include unwelcome touching, leering, sexually oriented jokes or cartoons, sexually oriented comments and epithets, and even staring at an employee's body.What qualifies as a hostile environment? ›
A hostile work environment exists when the harassment is so severe and pervasive that it alters your ability to do your job. The behavior must be more than just offensive; it must be objectively abusive. The harasser can be anyone in the workplace, including a supervisor, coworker, or even a customer or client.What questions are asked in a hostile work environment investigation? ›
- What did you see and hear?
- When was it? ...
- Where did it take place?
- Who was involved in the claims?
- What did each person in the incident do and say?
- What did you do and say?
- Was anyone else present?
- How did the complainant and subject react in response to what you witnessed?
Proving employment discrimination can often be difficult because evidence of discrimination tends to be hard to come by. However, there are a few ways wronged employees can make their claims in court and get their case in front of a jury.What does retaliation in the workplace look like? ›
What is retaliation? Retaliation occurs when an employer (through a manager, supervisor, administrator or directly) fires an employee or takes any other type of adverse action against an employee for engaging in protected activity.Can I sue my employer for emotional distress? ›
You can sue your employer for the emotional distress that they have caused. In many cases, if you have reported this to your boss and no action was taken, the courts will side with you since the employer took no course of action. You can sue for damages that this emotional distress has caused.How do you know if a work environment is hostile or abusive? ›
Courts must look at the totality of the circumstances to determine whether an environment is "hostile" or "abusive" and should consider the following nonexclusive list of factors: (1) the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; (2) its severity; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere ...How can you prove harassment? ›
Proving harassment to secure a conviction
the defendant has pursued a course of conduct. the course of conduct amounted to harassment of another person. the defendant knew or ought to have known that the course of conduct amounted to harassment.
What is considered a toxic work environment? ›
A toxic work environment is one where negative, antagonistic, or bullying behavior is baked into the very culture. In a toxic work environment, employees are stressed, communication is limited, blame culture is rife, and people are rewarded (tacitly or explicitly) for unethical, harmful, or nasty attitudes and actions.When should you go to HR for work? ›
- Any discrimination or harassment. ...
- Emotional and physical outbreaks. ...
- Medical issues. ...
- In-office romantic relationships. ...
- Questionable social media content. ...
- When management won't step in. ...
- When you have tried coworker mediation. ...
- When you need to terminate an employee.
Psychological harassment means any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, comments, actions or gestures that affects an individual's dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work or learning environment for the individual.What are 3 actions that are considered harassment? ›
- Sexual or offensive comments.
- Sending inappropriate texts, memos, or images that are sexual or crude in nature.
- Sexual innuendos in conversation.
- Unwarranted or unwelcome physical touch such as rubbing, touching, or hugging.
- Age Discrimination.
- Disability Discrimination.
- Sexual Orientation.
- Status as a Parent.
- Religious Discrimination.
- National Origin.
- Sexual Harassment.