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Hostile Work Environments and Harassment
One of the most common examples of hostile work environments is harassment. Not every harassed employee enjoys special legal protection in the workplace, however, because in order to be legal examples of hostile work environments, the harassment must be directed against a member of a protected class. Legally protected classes include gender, race, religion, and disability.
Besides being directed against a member of a protected class, harassment needs to pertain to the protected status of the target. For example, if a woman being harassed is targeted because of where she lives, not because of her gender, the case would not qualify as one of the examples of hostile work environments. If a pattern of sexual innuendo or inappropriate contact occurred, however, that would be sexual harassment, especially if the incidents were duly documented and reported.
Another requirement to establish harassment is a pattern of behavior, not just a single event. If the offensive behavior occurred only once or twice, a case alleging harassment usually will not be successful. The obvious exception to that rule is when physical contact is involved in the case of sexual harassment.
All employees need to know that they work in a respectful environment where they can focus on their work. An employee that is afraid to go to work because of the intimidating conduct of co-worker or supervisor is likely dealing with a hostile work environment even if the situation does not meet federal guidelines for harassment. Harassment not covered by official government legislation is still harassment, however, and can potentially be pursued in a variety of civil or criminal actions. Meanwhile, employees experiencing harassment should be careful not to react in a hostile manner as courts often consider employee behavior when entertaining workplace litigation.
Employers need sensitivity training to understand that harassment goes beyond behavior against protected classes and can result in legal action against the company or the manager involved in creating a hostile work environment.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jere (atp_tyreseus).
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Retaliatory Behavior as Part of a Hostile Work Environment
A worker who reports a safety violation, complains to a senior management about a problem in the workplace, or joins a union may encounter a hostile work environment if the boss retaliates with the intention of trying to force the employee to quit. Examples of hostile work environments similar to this may include spurious performance warnings or changes in wages and hours. Companies will often try to force an employee to quit so they do not have to deal with unemployment insurance issues.
Excessive monitoring is one possible method an employer might use to retaliate against an employee. Courts often favor employers over employee rights regarding such issues, so be aware that everything you do might be recorded, including your internet and phone activity.
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Victims of workplace retaliation should do their best to avoid quitting and make well documented complaints to management and government labor agencies. Consulting with an attorney specializing in workplace law might also be able to provide tips for resolving this type of hostile work environment.
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Hostile Work Environments and Physical Threats
One of the most serious examples of hostile work environments is found when an employee feels physically threatened. Whether physical harm actually occurs or if it is only threatened, the situation in the workplace can quickly become dangerous. Any employee found in this type of hostile work environment should consider leaving the premises or call law enforcement directly if management is not able or willing to address the security concern.
Employees who are physically threatened should avoid confrontation if possible and document everything that was said or done in relation to the situation. Fighting back leaves them open to physical harm and also detracts from their case should they pursue legal action.
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The Cost of Hostile Work Environments
When considering examples of hostile work environments, employers should not overlook the costs they incur to a business. Although often manifested in legal costs, the major costs incurred by a company with a hostile work environment is often staggering, even if no legal action is involved. eBossWatch cites a 2007 study by the University of Florida and Zogby International shows that hostile work environments result in nearly one-third of employees slowing down work or deliberately making errors. Employees who work in hostile work environments also cost businesses time as they hide from the boss, minimize their effort, abuse sick time, and spend more time on more frequently occurring breaks.
Additional costs of hostile work environments involve time spent by management investigating and mediating disputes, the time employees waste talking about related issues, counseling for affected employees, settlements, and the cost of training new hires to replace those who have quit under hostile circumstances. Considering that nearly 54 million workers have been subject to some form of a hostile work environment, it is clear that the cumulative lost productivity of and psychological toll of these conditions constitutes a significant cost to society in general.