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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.
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.
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.
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.