We all have a bad Monday, a difficult week or a frustrating month. That’s just the fundamental nature of work and career. One day you’re proud and enjoying the work, the other day you just don’t feel engaged.
However, if going to work makes you feel uncomfortable, offended, depressed, drained or discriminated against, that’s more than a minor inconvenience or general work stress; these are indicators of a hostile work environment.
Many people looking for a job position have certain goals and expectations regarding their workplaces. Most of them want a work environment where equality, open lines of communication, unity, teamwork and good leadership are recognised as key values.
A workplace that is considered hostile goes a long way in increasing the levels of stress on a daily basis. It can lead to a toxic culture which in turn may cause the company to drive away excellent employees, affect recruitment efforts, decrease employee productivity and revenue and hurt the company branding.
But what exactly qualifies as a hostile work environment and which are the factors that lead to it? Let’s dive deeper into the reasons that contribute to a poor and hostile work environment.
What is a hostile work environment?
A common misconception among many employees is that they believe a hostile work environment to be a general unpleasant work situation.
Things such as obnoxious colleges, unpleasant and rude bosses, not being fairly promoted, lack of perks, privileges, you name it, are indeed strenuous and can affect your work productivity, but they don’t exactly have the legal qualifications of a hostile environment.
Technically, a hostile work environment is one in which unwelcome remarks and actions conducted by either a supervisor or another coworker have a direct impact on an employee’s ability and willingness to do their job.
According to The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in order to meet the legal definition of a hostile environment, the conduct must create a discriminatory environment which is offensive, intimidating and hostile.
Offensive conduct may include the following:
- Offensive jokes and slurs
- Epithets and name calling
- Physical assaults or threats
- Ridicule and mockery
- Insults or put-downs
- Sexually offensive objects or pictures
- Interference with work performance
These offensive conducts may be based on an employee’s:
- Race ethnicity or colour
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation
- Level of ability
However, according to EEOC, offensive conducts become unlawful when:
- The conduct is ongoing (happening multiple times)
- The conduct is severe and pervasive
- The conduct is physically threatening and/or humiliating
- The conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance
Reasons that lead to a hostile work environment
A hostile work environment is a guaranteed way to contribute to a workplace which is not amicable or supportive of its employees. And for many people, work is like a second home. After relatives or family, your colleagues and team are likely to be the people you spend most of the time with on a daily basis.
Therefore, having a hostile workplace not only interferes with your work performance, it also follows you home, stealing away your sleep and leaving you stressed and worried.
Here are some of the reasons that contribute to a hostile work environment:
Poor and lack of communication
Workplaces may not rise to the level of an actionable hostile work environment overnight. It is usually the result of months and years of building subtle social and cultural undertones that may go unnoticed until the workplace has already been transformed into a toxic work culture.
According to Michael Handren, a marketing executive at Credit Summit, one of the main culprits that lead to such an environment is the insufficient, vague and scattered communication. This is crucial because in a hostile workplace, the first step to take for any harassed employee is to communicate the unlawful behaviour directly to the person responsible.
This cannot happen when employees become reluctant to address their issues and leaders often fail to create a work environment where clear and healthy communication is supported and valued.
A survey conducted by SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) found that almost 3 in 10 workers don’t trust their supervisor to treat them fairly and another 3 in 10 employees reported that their leader fails to promote a culture of open and assertive communication. They further found that 25% of employees:
- Are reluctant to work.
- Are not comfortable communicating their opinions about work-related issues.
- Don’t feel respected and valued at work.
Therefore, lack of communication between employees and managers is the main cause of poor productivity, quality and job satisfaction. It also often leads to confusion causing employees not to understand their priorities and purposes. Every problem arises from a lack of communication from which the following issues also arise and stem.
Office drama and gossiping
A little bit of gossiping in the office every now and then is only natural. We are all guilty of listening to what’s been kicked around the rumour mill. But it’s when gossiping is taken to an extreme that hostile workplaces come into picture.
Drama and office gossip leads to a siege mentality creating division and distrust among the employees and causing them to lose empathy and self-awareness. At this point, levels of productivity and quality decrease, giving rise to different cliques and groups.
Instead of cooperating and focusing to find a solution when a problem arises, employees work against each other and focus on personal goals rather than the shared vision of the company.
Unfortunately, inequality still exists in numerous workplaces. Treating an employee in a bad or lesser way just because of their gender, race, religion, age etc. is a surefire way to lead to a hostile work environment. According to research, there are still male to female pay gaps, pregnancy, young to old inequality etc.
Such a biased approach not only contributes to employee dissatisfaction and a toxic environment, but it can also reduce productivity and lead into legal troubles.
For instance, if the supervisors yell and set unattainable goals and make everyone deliver before the deadline, then this is not considered as something against the law. But if the supervisors treated only female employees this way, then one can say that the workplace has fulfilled the legal definition of a hostile workplace and can be handled through legal means.
Obscure and unclear goals and values
Clearly set goals and values drive a company forward. When each and every employee is aware of the company’s ethos as well as their own individual objectives, a positive work environment will emerge. They will be more optimistic and happier because they understand how they fit into the bigger picture.
Similarly, managers will also be in a better position to uphold the values of the company and make sure that goals are clearly stated and acknowledged and that employees have all the resources and freedom they need to complete their tasks successfully.
A hostile and toxic workplace, on the other hand, does not openly express and discuss its goals and values or has rendered them useless in pursuit of growth and financial gain. This leads to employees feeling trapped in their career journey, as if they are cooped in one place underutilising their talents and abilities.
Not having a dedicated HR department
The HR department is crucial in driving the company forward and helping the company in creating a healthy workplace environment with high levels of morale and satisfaction.
Every time a conflict arises or an employee has a grievance, they make sure that problems and disputes are properly investigated by addressing the dilemma objectively and facilitating open dialogue to find a solution. This is essential as employees will be more constructive in dealing and communicating their concerns.
The lack of a dedicated HR department on the other hand, where employees can freely communicate their worries and issues in the workplace will give rise to a hostile work environment.
It is no exaggeration to say that a hostile work culture can be extremely dangerous to a business. A hostile work climate can cause you to lose good employees, damage your recruiting marketing efforts, and stifle revenue and productivity. In other words, it’s a huge setback for your company’s image.
Many of these issues come as a result of having bad or closed communication within the company, not diligently communicating the company’s goals and values and the lack of dedicated HR department.
About the Author
Dardan Shehu is a former English teacher and a freelance writer specialising in personal finance and business education. He loves sharing educational content that revolves around saving money, financial protection, innovation and entrepreneurship. He is currently writing for the blog of Credit Summit.