How to Spot — and Depart — a Hostile Work Environment

A shocking 70 percent of American workers reported that they were unengaged with their work, either on purpose or not. For those who fall into this category, the daily grind can be something they dread. Work that’s not engaging, fulfilling or otherwise exciting can make 40 hours a week feel like forever.

But this level of dissatisfaction pales in comparison to the plight of an employee in a hostile work environment. Even worse is that some people may not even realize the fact that they are, indeed, immersed in a workplace that’s bad for them — and that it’s more than just a strong dislike of a job or a company. If this is the case, it’s crucial for employees to realize it since they should exit this type of office environment as soon as possible.

If you think you might be in this situation, it can be tough to determine whether a workplace is hostile and to figure out how to leave it once you do. Here’s how to spot – and depart – a hostile work environment.

Identifying a Hostile Work Environment

There are some workplaces that are admittedly uninviting or otherwise uncomfortable. For example, you might have a coworker who talks loudly on the phone, chomps gum or eats a smelly lunch right next door to your cubicle. This is a bother, certainly, but it doesn’t make your workplace a hostile one.

In fact, there’s a legal definition of what constitutes a hostile work environment because it is a type of discrimination overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A workplace is technically hostile if:

  • Discrimination against age, gender, race, disability or another protected classification
  • There’s a pattern of discrimination — one or two incidents won’t constitute a hostile environment. You’ll need to have a record that you went to human resources for help, too.
  • The company’s intervention techniques haven’t been effective at stopping the behavior in question, or their investigation into the discrimination hasn’t been detailed enough to uncover anything.
  • The discriminatory conduct is severe enough that it stops you from doing your job. A hostile work environment might prevent you from climbing the career ladder.
  • It’s clear that the employer didn’t do enough to stop it from becoming a hostile environment, which means they, too, are liable for it.

With these points in mind, it’s easier to envision a hostile work environment. A boss who regularly belittles female workers or overlooks an employee for a promotion because of their disability could make a workplace hostile, for example.

Exiting a Hostile Work Environment

There are multiple steps you can take to overcome a workplace that has stooped to this level. Your first option is, of course, to speak up about it. The only issue is that if you’re being belittled or discriminated against, it might be hard to confront the offender face to face. In that case, speak to the human resources team, or bring the problem to your boss. Make sure you have your evidence — write down specific instances so that when you make your claim, you can reference them.

Telling HR or a trusted colleague is a great first step because they can act as your eyes and ears, too. With more people paying attention, you’ll have more witnesses to the behavior that’s making it so hard to succeed. Then, further steps can be taken — perhaps human resources will speak directly to the employee or make a record of the behavior, and down the line, there will be plenty of evidence on file in case that person is let go.

You can’t take steps beyond this right away, though — your employer must have the chance to look into your claim and come up with a solution on their own. This is especially true if you plan to take legal action. A court will throw out your claim if you didn’t inform your company of your problem. They can’t be held liable if they didn’t know what was going on.

Just remember that it’s not up to you to figure out a solution on your own. Your boss or your human resources department will likely work with you to come up with a plan of action, so you’re able to achieve your potential in a comfortable environment. In fact, you might be surprised at just how well your employer is able to handle your claim and transform a once-hostile environment into a place where you enjoy to work once again.

In the off chance that’s not how things go, then you can take legal action against your employer. And you might want to consider transferring to another office within your company or finding a new position altogether in order to protect your peace of mind.

How have you handled a hostile work environment? Or, how do you plan to take action against an office that’s not conducive to you? Keep the conversation going in the comments section below. And make sure to sign up for our newsletter, so you don’t miss any of our work-related advice and tips.


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Photo: Shutterstock / Fizkes

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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