Identifying and improving a hostile work environment

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 7 October 2022

Published 7 December 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Everyone deserves a work environment where they feel safe and others respect them. If something interferes with your wellbeing in the workplace or creates an atmosphere where you're not comfortable doing your job, you may experience a range of challenges that can influence your career. Understanding what a hostile work environment is and how to respond can help you receive better treatment and establish healthy professional boundaries. In this article, we discuss the definition of a hostile workplace, explain how to determine if you're working in one and share tips on how to improve your situation.

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is a workplace where inappropriate, harassing or abusive behaviour influences the ability of one or more employees to perform their duties. In a work environment, complying with harassment or discrimination protocols may be a requirement for an employee to keep their job. The atmosphere in a hostile workplace may cause feelings of discomfort, intimidation or even fear. This experience is often ongoing and may become a pattern. Those who experience this kind of environment may feel that this misconduct directly connects to an aspect of their identities, such as their race, religion, sexual identity or disability.

Anyone can experience the effects of a hostile workplace, ranging from entry-level employees to members of the executive team. Additionally, any role within a workplace can commit misconduct that creates an intimidating work environment. Sometimes a specific individual may be the one who targets another individual, such as a manager or direct report. In contrast, others may have general behaviours that make the workplace an unwelcoming environment for their entire team.

Related: Types of work environments (plus how to improve yours)

Signs of a hostile work environment

Here are some of the elements of a hostile workplace to help you identify this kind of situation:

Discrimination

Workplace discrimination can make it difficult or even impossible for certain people to be successful in the workplace. Discrimination happens when certain individuals in the workplace mistreat others because of aspects of their identity. This can include denying them opportunities because of their background or making prejudiced comments. When someone's personal biases about race, religion, gender and other demographics influence another person's comfort and performance in the workplace, they may create a hostile atmosphere. Discrimination is especially harmful because it targets entire groups of people and can influence someone's ability to advance for their entire career.

When discrimination exists in the workplace on any level, it can lead to people feeling unwelcome. If a workplace has a culture where people make offensive jokes about people's personal identities, this may cause some individuals to feel that listening to those comments is a requirement for being part of a team. Because of the offensive comments, some people may have trouble focusing, impacting their ability to succeed at work. More overt discrimination may include a manager denying a team member promotions because of their gender.

Related: Learning about diversity and inclusion: 10 free virtual courses

Intimidation

Threats and intimidation in the workplace indicate that it's an unhealthy environment. When someone tries to use fear to get what they want in the workplace, this creates a harmful power dynamic. Job security and having positive workplace relationships are essential to a pleasant, positive experience in the workplace. If someone at work uses intimidation and bullying to achieve certain outcomes, it can make others feel that they have less independence and create constant worry about doing something wrong.

A common form of intimidation in this kind of work environment is retaliation. This happens when one person does something that another colleague doesn't like, so they punish them by assigning them unpleasant tasks, sabotaging their projects, threatening them with poor performance reviews or even using physical and verbal violence. Retaliation creates an intimidating, hostile situation by showing people that if they don't meet the unrealistic expectations of a certain individual, they receive unfair treatment.

Humiliation

A culture of bullying and humiliation produces an unwelcoming situation for any member of the team who experiences or witnesses it. Insults, demeaning remarks, sarcastic comments and belittling actions can decrease morale over time. Whether the humiliating behaviour occurs in public or private, it can lower someone's confidence in their skills and ability to perform their duties. Humiliation can include gossip and comments that happen when a colleague isn't in the room. This can damage their reputation and make it more difficult for them to gain respect from their co-workers.

Interference with job duties

The effects of a hostile situation can increase daily. Negative work environments can prevent you from successfully completing your work in several different ways. For example, co-workers repeating offensive jokes in public spaces may discourage you from entering areas in your office where crucial work takes place, such as a copy room or a joint workspace. Hostility from a manager may discourage you from asking necessary questions about assignments, reducing the quality of your work.

Tips for dealing with a negative work environment

If you're in a hostile situation at work, use these tips to improve your environment:

Report misconduct

If you experience any form of harassment or humiliation at work, report it to the human resources department immediately. You can report misconduct as soon as it occurs, even if it's a single instance. While one instance of misconduct doesn't always constitute a hostile workplace, reporting one issue may help prevent further instances from developing into a hostile environment in the future.

Even if you don't directly experience a hostile situation, you can report misconduct if you witness inappropriate behaviour. Supporting someone who experiences bullying, discrimination or harassment can help change the workplace culture and demonstrate that others on the team want them to feel safe at work. Reporting hostility creates documentation that you can use to protect yourself and others from future negative behaviours.

Related: Code of conduct examples in the workplace and why to use them

Ask for the behaviour to stop

Sometimes, people may not be aware that their behaviours are problematic. Depending on your comfort and the severity of the situation, you may consider approaching your colleague directly and having a conversation about their behaviour. You can do this yourself, or ask a manager to have a conversation with them. Another option is to ask someone to mediate the discussion as a neutral third party. No matter who speaks to them, it's essential that they know the behaviour is inappropriate, and why, and that you want it to stop.

During the discussion, clearly identify what they're doing to make you feel uncomfortable at work and how you want them to change their behaviour. Providing solutions can make it more likely for you to achieve an ideal outcome. You can write down your ideas to make yourself feel more confident before the meeting or to communicate more directly to whoever is advocating for you during the conversation.

Related: Why is communication important? (and how to improve it)

Be honest about your feelings

Whether you tell human resources, contact a supervisor or directly approach the people contributing to the hostile situation, be honest about how the situation influences you and your work. Be direct about how the atmosphere at work makes you feel and how specific actions make your workplace more challenging. Your manager or employer can better help you improve your environment if they understand the impact this situation is having on you.

Positive work culture is becoming increasingly important in the areas of employee retention and the maintenance of job satisfaction. Satisfied, fulfilled employees typically perform better than those who are unhappy or have issues with their colleagues. An unfriendly work environment is in direct contrast to the ideals of promoting high morale and encouraging teamwork. For this reason, many employers or managers are willing to work quickly to help resolve issues related to workplace hostility when you're open about the problems.

Be persistent

Your safety at work is important, so advocate for yourself frequently, especially if you reported the incidents but the environment didn't change. If your direct supervisor hasn't resolved the problem in a reasonable amount of time, approach a higher level of management with your concerns. Even if you haven't experienced the change you want, continue to report any incidents of misconduct to the human resources department.

If you stop reporting the infractions, your manager may believe that the problem has stopped. Persistence shows that you're serious about resolving the issue and that you have high standards for how you want others to treat you in the workplace. This sets positive boundaries for the future, which is important for your growth and development.

Seek support

Ask for support from your family, friends or trusted colleagues to help handle the stress you may experience from working in an unwelcoming or challenging situation. Experiencing discrimination or bullying from others at work can be upsetting, and trying to resolve the situation can require a significant amount of energy. Having emotional support and encouragement from your loved ones can give you the motivation to resolve your situation and seek the outcome you deserve. Building a support network or looking for help from a professional can give you the opportunity to talk about your experiences and heal.

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