What Is A Hostile Work Environment? (And How To Deal With It)

By Chris Kolmar - Sep. 13, 2021
Articles In Life At Work Guide

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You finally found your dream job with a great paycheck and killer benefits. That is, until a workplace bully threatens you, quickly transforming your dream job into a nightmare. These toxic coworkers can lead to a mental breakdown if you let them.

The sad fact is that racism, sexual harassment, and bullying are more commonplace than you would think. In fact, the Workplace Bullying Institute cited that 19% of adults said they’d personally been bullied at work.

It is possible to deflect these threats, maintain your self-respect, and still thrive in your role. Here are some tips on how to handle a hostile work environment.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is one in which a colleague’s behavior and/or words make it impossible for you to do your job properly. Legally, it means that this behavior fundamentally altered the conditions of your employment contract and reasonable expectations for a comfortable work environment.

To fully qualify as a hostile work environment, these actions and communications must also be discriminatory. When an employee makes a hostile work environment claim, they do so under federal law, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The onus is on the reporter to prove that they or a colleague was discriminated against on grounds of race, gender, color, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, age, or pregnancy. The actions also must reach a point that is considered abusive.

Not all workplace bullies are necessarily guilty of creating a hostile work environment. Rude behavior and unfair delegation of work can certainly make your work life miserable, but they don’t rise to the legal definition of a hostile work environment.

However, when a workplace bully makes abusive remarks about your gender, tells racist jokes, or makes cracks about a coworker’s age, they are crossing the line into hostile work environment territory.

Finally, this behavior must be continuous and seriously interfere with your ability to work. A few off-color remarks in a non-work context that don’t hinder your ability to work might not qualify as creating a hostile work environment.

However, if these behaviors are recurring and nothing changes after making repeated reports, then you can file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the incident in question.

How to Deal With a Hostile Work Environment

  • Talk to HR or a supervisor. The first step to dealing with the problem is making sure that relevant people know what’s happening. It’s hard to confront a bully, especially one you work with every day. Having intermediaries who can authoritatively tell the individual to cease their bad behavior is a good start.

  • Put your complaint in writing. While it’s not fun to think this way, it’s a fact that this case might become a legal matter or at least a matter of internal dispute. Having clear, unemotional, and contemporary written documentation will help your case tremendously down the road.

    Also ask for all warnings to the toxic employee to be put in writing, so that there’s a clear timeline of when each event took place.

  • File a complaint with the EEOC. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handles hostile workplace claims. Their phone number is 1-800-669-4000 and their website includes a jurisdiction map where you can find your most local point of contact https://www.eeoc.gov/youth/contact-eeoc.

    Note that this step should be reserved for after you’ve made several complaints, have plentiful documentation that details the actions, responses, and timeline of events.

What Does the EEOC Consider a Hostile Work Environment?

The EEOC considers a work environment hostile if “conduct create[s] a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” Furthermore, they give the following, non-comprehensive list of examples of hostile behaviors:

  • Offensive jokes

  • Slurs

  • Epithets

  • Name calling

  • Physical assaults or threats

  • Intimidation

  • Ridicule or mockery

  • Insults or put-downs

  • Offensive objects or pictures

  • Interference with work performance

Additionally, they note that:

  • The relationship between harasser and victim is unimportant

  • Anyone affected by the offensive conduct can make a claim, not just the victim

  • Illegal harassment can happen without economically injuring the victim or reuslting in their discharge

If a claim is successful, the employer is automatically held liable.

How Bullying May Affect You at Work

Bullying takes several forms. It can be physically tormenting and messing with you, your things, or your workspace. A bully can also hurt you emotionally by publicly humiliating you. Sometimes a bully may even try to undermine your job.

The struggle is real as you:

  • Run out of the conference room in tears after what the bully said

  • Lose it when the jerk puts a pile of reports to review on your desk 10 minutes before the end of the day

  • Fume with anger as the bully tells outright lies about you

  • Shrink in your chair as the bully walks by, giving you the evil eye

  • Freak out as the bully acts seemingly nice before putting a dagger in your back

  • Turn red when you see the bully sent out an email with a revealing photo of you they found online to your whole office

  • Become unnerved as the perpetrator stops by once an hour, asking if the project is done yet

  • Are humiliated as the bully criticizes you for losing a top client account

  • Feel violated when arrive at your desk to find everything is rearranged as a practical joke

  • Can’t sleep at night worrying if your job is secure

  • Have knots in your stomach worrying about the horror you will experience next

  • Start loathing your job and wonder if it’s time to leave

  • Find it harder to focus and get your work done during the day

  • Wonder if you should start looking for another job with less drama

  • Contemplate calling in a sick day just to avoid the bully

Read more about how bullying can affect mental health in the workplace.

The 4 Types of Workplace Bullies

  1. Passive Aggressive Patty. She is unassertive about expressing her negative feelings. For example, she may appear to be doing something kind but has an evil intent she is secretly employing behind that.

    • She deliberately fails on a task so she won’t have to do that in the future.

    • She intentionally delays doing a task you asked her to complete as a way of punishing you.

    • She gives an insincere compliment that starts out nice but ends in a dig.

  2. Judgemental Judy. She has a need to show how superior she is. Although beneath it all, she feels very insecure and puts down others to feel better about herself.

    • She is supercritical and nit-picky about everything.

    • She brags about being the best in everything.

    • She constantly criticizes you in front of others.

    • She gives you unwanted advice about the right way to do things.

  3. Manipulative Mark. He appears to be nice on the surface. After he draws you in, he flips the script and tries to control you. He makes you feel stupid and crazy. He exerts his power over you. His goal is to make you feel weak and helpless as he dominates your world.

    • He loves to play the victim and make it look like you are the one who caused the problem.

    • He tells you that you are a drama queen and totally overreacting.

    • He attacks you and then asks why you are so defensive.

  4. All About Me Amanda. She is a diva. She expects everyone to bow down to her. She is loud and proud and demands attention.

    • She hogs all the attention at meetings and doesn’t give anyone else a chance to speak.

    • She throws a temper tantrum like a toddler if she doesn’t get her way.

    • She lets you know that it’s her way or the highway.

Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Potential Bullies

The bully is likely to target the new guy, someone they feel jealous of, a person who appears weak, the one who got promoted instead of him, anyone who is different, or someone who is too nice.

No one deserves to be bullied, and you don’t have to stand for this behavior. It is possible to disarm a bully. Bullies thrive on you giving them a dramatic reaction to their threats. If you let their desperate acts for attention and control roll right off you, they won’t get the “high” they are looking for.

Bullies like to pick on people to make themselves feel more powerful. So they seek people who they perceive as weak to be a target. When you walk tall, project confidence, and stand up for yourself, you aren’t as attractive as a victim.

Distance yourself from the bully when you can. If they are in the coffee room, wait to refill your cup. Make allies with the “cool kids” at work – the strong coworkers the bully doesn’t pick on.

Bullies like to do their dirty deeds under the radar. So if you see the bully coming, walk away. If you aren’t in the same vicinity as them, they can’t unleash their cruelty on you.

Make a plan of what to say if the bully attacks you verbally. One tactic is to agree with them, saying “thank you” or “you’re right” and walk away. Don’t give the bully the satisfaction of seeing you cringe. If you don’t react when they pick on you, then they will stop doing it.

Don’t take what they say personally. Only take in what you feel is the truth. Nothing the bully says or does is because of you. Empathize about the pain and insecurity they must feel that they have to stoop to such low measures to feel better about themselves.

Here’s more advice for:

Why Bullies Get Away With It

Bullies have a method to their madness. They are master manipulators. Many movies portray the snotty rich kid as the one who tried to humiliate the new kid in town. Similarly, the arrogant superstar at work likes to feel like the world owes him something. How is it these bullies remain in power?

One of the reasons is that bullies like to get in tight with the big players. When you sit at the big kid table, you are protected by the others.

You might see the bully taking the boss out golfing, out for drinks, or giving him tickets to the football game.

Sometimes bullies like to intimidate those in power, so they are too afraid to speak up and squash their behaviors. If a bully is bringing in the big bucks, they may feel secure that management will look the other way about their menacing tactics.

Tell Management About the Bullying

  • If you are at the point where you are walking on eggshells because of your toxic coworker, then maybe it’s time to report the behavior.

  • Document the behavior so you have a complete record of what they did and when it happened.

  • Gather any evidence you can, such as emails, testimony from witnesses, pictures, or other proof of toxic behaviors.

  • Review the company policies regarding bullying. There may be a procedure to follow. There may be an anonymous hotline you can call.

  • If your coworker injures you or damages your property, you can report that to the police.

  • You may find that unless your bully has done something illegal, that HR says it’s something that the two of you need to work out yourselves.

Leaving Your Job Because of Bullying

Feeling fed up? Sometimes despite your best efforts, the bully will continue to terrorize you. This behavior can affect your mental health and cause you physical distress.

It’s tough to do your best work when you are always looking over your shoulder, wondering what your abusive coworker will do next.

If you have notified human resources or management about the bullying and the behavior continues, you may decide it’s time to leave your job.

If things have really escalated, have a plan for your safety. If you are concerned about being fired, gather your important personal items and clean up your computer and files first.

Be calm and collected when you tell your boss that you are quitting and why. The more centered you are, the more credibility you will have when you share about the bullying incidents.

You don’t want to appear like you were folding under pressure. Make sure you tell your boss that you haven’t arrived at your decision lightly. Just let your boss know why the effects the bullying was having on you and how it hampered your ability to perform on your job.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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