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What is a Hostile Workplace?

By S. Gonzales
Updated May 16, 2024
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A hostile workplace is generally defined as a work environment that harbors discriminatory behavior or harassment. This type of behavior doesn’t have to affect all of a company’s employees; only one person needs to be negatively impacted by the environment for it to be considered “hostile." In many respects, the term is somewhat subjective, and though it sounds vaguely legalistic, there aren’t usually any legal consequences or ramifications unless the behavior involves some sort of discrimination, or unless it’s possible to prove a systemic abuse of power or authority. Most hostility is more minor, but it can still impact things like employee productivity and the company’s bottom line. It can also cause problems with morale and the general corporate culture. For these reasons many companies look for ways of reaching out to employees at all levels to gauge their satisfaction, and to look for ways of fixing issues of hostility before they get out of hand.

Why it Happens

Other names for a hostile workplace may include “intimidating work environment,” “abusive work environment” or “offensive work environment.” There are a number of reasons people may use these terms to describe employment situations, but in most cases it comes down to interpersonal interactions and general patterns of relationships between people with authority and those who are, for workplace purposes, more inferior.

While a hostile workplace can take on many forms, some common characteristics include verbal abuse and anger over territories or boundaries. Excessive competition, power plays, unnecessary challenges and the undermining of a person's work may also be part of it, as well as any other means of sabotaging productivity. Sexually motivated harassment can also be part of it. This includes the use of sexual or discriminatory language, sexual leering or aggressive staring, unsolicited touching, inappropriate language, and lewd gestures.

Common Inclusions and Exclusions

Nailing down a precise definition can be difficult in part because of how subjective the matter is, as well as how wide reaching it can be. A lot depends on the circumstances and the people involved. Just the same, though, most experts and human resources staff say that the term is best used to describe sustained patterns of problematic behavior. Not all negative behavior is considered true harassment, and things like unwanted teasing, isolated comments, and one-time incidents generally do not fall under the definition. This is particularly true when the problem is stemming from just one person; a co-worker, for instance. Not getting along with a coworker can make day-to-day office life challenging, but it doesn’t normally meet the threshold of harassment. Intimidating behavior that comes from a superior might qualify, though, particularly it if happens over and over again in multiple contexts, and if that sort of behavior is reinforced in other aspects of work life, like at meetings or with the participation of other team members.

Placing Blame

It’s often a common assumption that hostility in the workplace comes primarily from a boss, employee or coworker. These are often the most likely culprits, and are also some of the most common. They aren’t the only possibilities, though. Anyone involved or in contact with the workplace can be considered to be an antagonist depending on the circumstances. Clients, independent contractors, guests or even third-party vendors with whom a person has to work can make a workplace inhospitable.

Larger Impacts

The employee who feels directly targeted or harassed is usually the first victim of a hostile workplace, and is the most important one, too. He or she isn’t usually alone, however. Negative office environments can also impact the business's larger production and bottom line. Employees who feel that they are being harassed or tormented for no fixable reason may spend their work hours worried about the perceived or real threat, often formulating defenses or otherwise coping. This can cause serious dips in productivity.

Other observers may also be impacted indirectly. Onlookers who see one person or group of people being treated poorly, or even those who hear rumors of certain divisions or departments that are particularly brutal or aggravating, may stop communicating as freely and stop sharing their ideas as openly. This sort of behavior is often driven by a desire to not be noticed so as to not be targeted, and it isn’t usually good for productivity. When word spreads that there is hostility in a certain workplace the company may also have a hard time attracting the right people for open positions.

Legal Ramifications

Most places don’t have laws specifically against hostility in the workplace. To a certain extend these sorts of laws would be hard to craft since the behavior depends so much on personal impressions and feelings. This doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t ever legal consequences or ramifications for truly egregious situations. In some cases, the circumstances under which the hostility develops can be illegal. For example, harassment or bullying that takes place because of someone's race, religion, nationality, age, sex or disability may be grounds for legal scrutiny and penalty. In order to be punishable, though, harassment due to these factors generally has to be severe and pervasive. It typically also must occur repeatedly, usually over a span of several months or years, for it to be interpreted as a serious legal matter.

Strategies and Solutions

It is usually in business owners’ best interest to make sure that all offices and work zones are hospitable places where employees are relaxed and free to work to their potential. There are different ways of achieving this goal, but it can include regular employee satisfaction surveys, open communication between leaders and low-level workers, and opportunities for inferior employees to rank or review their bosses. There isn’t always a way to prevent hostility in the workplace, but companies that make efforts to recognize it, remove it, and promote positive channels of communication often have the best outcomes.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By clindlief — On Nov 01, 2013

I am currently a victim of workplace harassment. I have been suffering this abuse for only a few weeks and it has destroyed my whole mental attitude. I feel so devastated. I consider myself to be a pretty tough person but I am a shell of what I was.

The bosses at my work are well aware of the abuse that goes on even laugh about it. It is well known that new employees in the office are "hazed" ruthlessly. Most quit and I had enough, that even though I desperately needed the job, I had to leave yesterday. Another girl was terrorized so badly she just stopped showing up and won't answer the phone. This has happened to several women and yet the bosses do nothing to stop it. What can I do?

By anon334194 — On May 10, 2013

There are many ways hostile work environments form and it is very sad that so many times management allows it to occur. Often you will find management encouraging the bad behavior, as they believe it makes people work harder when in fact, it makes them simply want to leave.

By LisaLou — On Jul 16, 2012

Even with stricter laws and more awareness of discrimination in the workplace, it still happens more often than it should.

I think many times people feel powerless to do anything or think it is not worth the trouble. I worked with a lady who felt like she was discriminated against because she was female. She was passed over for several job promotions that were given to males who were not as qualified.

She ended up leaving the company but decided to file a lawsuit against them. I know she ended up receiving some kind of settlement from it.

Even though the workplace as a whole was not hostile, she felt like she was being unjustly discriminated against. I don't think very many people would have the courage to do what she did, but it did set an example for other people in a similar situation.

By myharley — On Jul 15, 2012

My son worked at a job that probably could have been considered a hostile work environment. His boss was very controlling and nothing was ever done right. This really started to wear on him after awhile. His boss was the owner of the company and treated most all of the staff that way.

It was not surprising there was so much employee turnover. She eventually ended up losing the business because of poor money management. As far as I know nobody ever filed any kind of complaint against her, but it sure was not a very pleasant place to work.

By Mykol — On Jul 14, 2012

From the outside it might be easy to tell someone to just go get another job if they are dealing with a hostile workplace. Many times this is easier said than done because jobs are hard to find.

When it comes down to wondering how you are going to pay your bills vs putting up with a hostile workplace every day, that is not an easy decision to make.

Thankfully I can say I have never personally had to work at a hostile workplace. There were sometimes people I didn't get along with all that great, but it was never a hostile environment.

I can only imagine how stressful it would be to go to work every day knowing you were facing a tough situation like that. If it were me, I know I would be spending all of my free time looking for another job. In the mean time, I would try to stick it out until I knew I had another job lined up.

By LoriCharlie — On Jul 14, 2012

@Monika - I don't think making a law is the way to go in this instance. I mean, where would it end? How would you even enforce that? Can you really take someone to court for just "being mean" to you?

I think in situations where there is a hostile workplace, the management of the company should intervene. The people who are creating the hostile workplace should be given some kind of counseling on how to interact with other people, then if they can't get their acts together, they should be fired!

But there's really no need to bring the court into it unless it's a case of workplace discrimination.

By Monika — On Jul 13, 2012

@Pharoah - Yeah, unfortunately sometimes the best thing you can do in a situation like that is just quit and find a new job. If all of your coworkers don't like you and are conspiring to make your life miserable, sometimes there isn't really much you can do about it, especially since there aren't laws against it.

I definitely think there should be laws against creating a hostile environment. Workplaces should be at least bearable for all the employees. I feel like there's really no excuse for creating a hostile workplace for someone else, especially if you're old enough to know better.

By Pharoah — On Jul 12, 2012

@JackWhack - That sounds like it was awful for the girl who was being harassed about her weight. I'm glad in that case management actually stuck up for her and remedied the hostile workplace harassment that was going on. Not everyone is so lucky though!

One of my friends had a bartending job in college and she was definitely in a hostile workplace. She made an enemy out of one of the people who had worked there for a long time on her first day, so the rest of the staff found lots of ways to make her miserable.

Her bar was never stocked the way it was supposed to be and they would mess with her schedule a lot, among other things. Unfortunately, she wasn't being discriminated against for any legally protected reason, so there was really nothing she could do. She wound up just quitting and finding another job.

By JackWhack — On Jul 11, 2012

I worked at a retail store in the mall with a bunch of teenagers when I was thirty-two. They behaved terribly toward this one overweight girl who worked there.

They called her offensive names to her face, and they snickered whenever she walked by, because she was so overweight that she could not help but waddle. I saw her turn red in the face a few times, and I even heard her crying in the bathroom once.

She eventually filed a hostile workplace complaint. The manager told the teenagers that if they did not stop their childish behavior, she would have to fire them. One of them just could not control her tongue, and she did lose her job, but this threat scared the other girl straight.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 10, 2012

Having a hostile environment in your workplace is the worst! Since you have to go there five days a week, it can make your life miserable.

I had to work with a woman who was exceedingly competitive. She would spy on me and try to steal ideas and work away from me before I could follow through with anything.

She didn't hide the fact that she didn't like me, either. She made cutting remarks all the time, and I hated getting caught in line at the copy machine behind her, because she couldn't just ignore me. She constantly reminded me that I was always in her way and she sought to bring me down.

My boss thought that this competition was healthy, so he did nothing about it. I just had to find ways to outsmart her. I spent most of my time trying to be sneaky and hide things from her.

By healthy4life — On Jul 10, 2012

@cloudel – You're right. I don't think hostile workplace law could help you out there.

Since there's no law against chattering or lingering for a few moments, you will probably just have to find a creative solution. When you see him headed your way, pick up the phone to make a call or start to walk away like you are going to someone else's office and just say hello in passing.

If you do one of those things, then maybe he will see that you are too busy to chat. At the very least, you won't be at your desk for him to corner you.

By cloudel — On Jul 10, 2012

I've never really had a hostile workplace environment, but I have been made to feel extremely uncomfortable at work about once a week. The guy who refills the vending machines comes by weekly, and he always stops by my desk and attempts to chat.

It's so weird, because he doesn't do this to any of the other employees. Also, when there is nothing to say, he just stands there silently. He never just passes on by, even if I'm very busy.

Since this doesn't constitute actual harassment, what can I do about it? My supervisor has seen it happen, and he just thinks it's funny.

By ElizaBennett — On Jul 09, 2012

@MissDaphne - I think the main difference is that harassment is more likely to be one-on-one, while it often takes several people to create a hostile environment in the workplace. And their behavior may be less egregious individually, but adding up to an intolerable situation.

Imagine a situation where two women, for instance, work in a shop with several men, maybe six or seven. In typical harassment, one or two of the men might pinch or slap the women on the bottom, ask them out over and over again, make rude comments, that kind of thing.

A hostile environment might involve all or most of the men and could include things like hanging up a girlie calendar and referring to it often, making lots of sexist jokes, and generally creating an atmosphere that could make women uncomfortable. The shop supervisor is responsible for keeping inappropriate behavior in check.

By MissDaphne — On Jul 09, 2012

When it comes to sexual harassment, what is the difference between a hostile work environment versus plain old harassment?

I'm thinking of your "garden variety" case, if you will, in which a woman is being harassed by a man (although there are certainly other kinds). What are some examples?

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