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Man pointing finger at camera in a hostile work environment

What to Do If You’re in a Hostile Work Environment

Last updated: July 12, 2019
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The distance between a harmonious and a hostile work environment is slim. One wrong comment, a thoughtless overstep, or any unsavory behavior, and you can expect to hear from human resources (HR).

A few organizations that have a lot to say about hostile working environments are the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the National Labor Relations Board, and the United States Department of Labor. All these were put together to protect employees, employers, and their rights to a positive, healthy workplace. And if the U.S. government cares so much about these things, then all companies — big and small — should too.

We’ll define what a hostile work environment is, what it isn’t, and what you can do if you happen to find yourself in one. You have the right to protect yourself against any forms of hostility, and the following information will help to ensure that your workplace is one you feel safe and comfortable in (or know how to get out of).

What Is a Hostile Work Environment ?

The word “hostile” is an ambiguous one — what’s hostile to one person may not be hostile to another. So how does someone know when they’re in a hostile environment? For the most part, a hostile work environment is created when someone’s behavior in the workplace causes others to feel so scared, intimidated, or discriminated against that it impacts their ability to work.

That someone can be a supervisor, manager, co-worker, contractor, or third-party vendor. And the harm they cause isn’t just toward the person being directly harassed — others who are witnesses to the workplace harassment are also affected, finding themselves in the middle of a very uncomfortable situation.

When Does Hostile Behavior Become a Legal Issue?

Some people are quick to refer to any mildly unpleasant work environment as hostile. But even though things like long hours, tough treatment, or office annoyances may rub an employee the wrong way, they’re not illegal.

In order for workplace behavior to be considered hostile, certain legal criteria have to be met — the behavior has to be discriminatory in nature, pervasive, severe, and unwelcome.

Discrimination goes above and beyond thoughtless jokes and rude behavior. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination is any harassing behavior directed at a protected class, such as sex, religion, race, color, or national origin.

It must also be pervasive, not just limited to one or two random instances, and severe enough that it seriously disrupts the person’s work performance or interferes with their career growth.

It’s the continuous nature of a discriminatory act that differentiates a hostile workplace from cruel, but still legal, workplace bullying. However, in some situations, severity can outrank pervasiveness, and a single event is enough to create a hostile environment.

The best thing to do is approach each case objectively — would any other reasonable person in a similar circumstance consider the behavior part of a hostile work environment?

How to Deal With a Hostile Work Environment

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You’ve given it a lot of thought and feel strongly that you’re in a hostile work environment. The first step is to ask the offending person to stop the particular action or behavior. If you’d rather not confront them yourself, you can ask for help from your supervisor or HR department. Outwardly expressing your complaint is a clear sign there is unwelcome conduct in the workplace.

Most of the time, the person will immediately stop the behavior. They often don’t realize they’re being offensive, and it’s always best to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But if you’ve attempted to call the person’s attention to their behavior and they still don’t stop what they’re doing, then take the issue up with your HR department, supervisor, or employer. Tolerance for offensive behavior and unlawful harassment is very low these days, and most companies will move quickly to investigate and eliminate the behavior.

If the company was properly informed but didn’t move to resolve the issue, then they can be held liable for the creation of a hostile work environment.

Independent Contractors in a Hostile Work Environment

How about for those working with a company but not as an employee? Unfortunately, these rules and regulations aren’t so clear. Despite the 56.7 million Americans currently in the freelance workforce, there’s still no set protocol for dealing with third-party hostility issues.

Freelancers and independent contractors typically don’t have access to HR departments to handle the issue for them. Plus, because they aren’t covered by federal anti-discrimination laws, equal employment laws, or the like, they’re unable to file any hostile work environment claims. (A few states, like California, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington, have state laws that protect independent contractors. But the majority don’t.) This makes a painful, distressing situation even worse.

The nature of freelance work — often done in informal, isolated settings (i.e., coffee shops and restaurants) — can put independent contractors at risk of harassment. They also can’t usually compare notes with coworkers or other employees about the harasser, which may lead them to keep silent or even question their own judgment.

To date, there are two ways an independent contractor may be able to take legal recourse against a hostile work environment.

First, the distinction between an employee and an independent contractor isn’t always clear-cut, which in this case, may work in the contractor’s favor. For instance, if the company (the client) is controlling any aspect of how the work is done, the contractor is actually considered to be working as an employee, and is therefore protected by the EEOC laws. See if this applies to you by reading the IRS guidelines and other helpful information.

Second, if the harassment crosses over into criminal activity, such as sexual harassment or physical assault, you can press charges no matter what your role in the company is. Cases like these go beyond employee rights and affect with your rights as a citizen.

There are a few other ways to make sure your rights are duly exercised:

  • Approach the company’s HR department: If the client you’re working with is big enough to have an HR department, don’t be afraid to approach them. Remember, however, that HR works to protect the company — not the contractors. It’s best to frame your case in a way that places the company open to legal issues or liabilities if the problem is not resolved.
  • Put it in your contract: Until federal laws catch up to the rising freelance economy, it’s a good idea to add your own anti-discrimination, anti-harassment clause to your contracts. Reserve the right to terminate the project immediately in cases of harassment and be fully compensated for any work done. You may even opt to charge the entire project cost as a way to make up for any potential income loss. You’ll find that most clients worth having will have no problem agreeing to these terms.
  • Keep a paper trail: If you’ve issued any complaints, make sure to save all the communications possible — emails, screenshots, records of Skype calls, etc. Having proof helps you argue your case to the company (or even in court), and reach a favorable resolution.
  • Before you run off on social media, think things through: It’s easy to take matters into your own hands by naming and shaming the company on social media. This feels like swift and instant justice. However, be aware of potential consequences. Calling out a company — especially one with significantly greater resources — may be more trouble than you bargained for and even make you come off as unprofessional. Seek legal advice, and weigh all the outcomes to know exactly what you’re getting into.

How to Prevent Hostile Behavior

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Dealing with a hostile work environment is never an easy or light task. But the best way to help these situations is by providing clear lines of communication.

Everyone in a workplace should feel comfortable enough to share any issues they’re having with coworkers, supervisors, or anyone else. And they should feel confident that they’ll be taken seriously.

Supervisors and HR departments are responsible for making sure everyone understands what’s considered offensive, discriminatory, and generally unacceptable behavior. Furthermore, they should be properly trained to detect any signs of possible hostility.

Make It Work

With so many individuals working together, it can be hard to maintain a harmonious environment at all times. But should you ever feel personally offended — to the point where you can’t work or make professional progress — there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself. Take the time to learn about your rights as an employee or independent contractor, and make sure your work environment is safe and sound.

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