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What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?


While there are dangerous work environments, physical danger is not an element defining a hostile work environment. It has nothing to do with industrial settings, retail or office settings. A hostile work environment exists when an employee is continually intimidated, offended, “bashed,” abused either physically or mentally, and/or degraded. Legally, some states allow the designation only when the harassment is toward or about defined, protected categories, such as gender or race.

The Bully

A workplace bully can be a co-worker, a supervisor, or a visitor or contractor. A bully can be male or female. He or she can work nearby but has repeated contact with the employee in the workplace. In short, an abuser can be anyone in any work capacity that has continued contact with the victim.


When questioned, the employee might not admit being abused; often the denial stems from pride or intimidation, especially when the abuser is physically larger than the victim, when there is a group involved, or when a supervisor is the abuser. Oftentimes, an employee will opt to resign and find employment elsewhere instead of documenting and reporting the detrimental conduct, in hopes of just putting the experience behind him. This instance occurs most when a person in a position of authority is involved.


Proving a hostile workplace exists can sometimes be difficult. The abusive comments can easily be shrugged off as kidding around with co-workers, constructive criticism by a supervisor, or be denied outright, sometimes because the victim has been coerced into believing continued employment depends on tolerance. It can be as blatant as shouting derogatory comments across an office or as subtle as a private whisper.

The proof that a workplace is hostile for an employee or a group of employees can sometimes be found in the effect on the victim. An employee with previously exemplary attendance suddenly often calls in sick or is late. Performance standards fall. The victim doesn’t interact with others anymore or to a far lesser degree. The victim becomes increasingly nervous around others, dropping goods, tools, and equipment. He or she could become constantly irritated or angry, disrupting workflow or arguing with others.

Because of the subtle distinction between an uncomfortable work environment and an actual hostile work environment, victims may often not report the situation for fear of presenting the impression that they are not mature or mentally able to handle the situation themselves.


Expert Opinion

Quote:   “In a hostile work environment a supervisor does not threaten direct employment action against the employee. Instead, the supervisor’s action (or lack of action) poisons the work environment and allows it to become hostile to an employee.”

Source:  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Law

By Cara C. Putman

Quote:   …”Because isolated remarks seldom, if ever, cause a hostile work environment, and because determining the existence of a hostile work environment requires and examination of all relevant circumstances, it is impossible to demonstrate in advance that any particular workplace speech will create a hostile work environment.”

Source:  International Labour Law Reports, Volume 19 By Alan Gladstone, Benjamin Aaron, Zvi H. Bar-Niv




Attorney, Deborah C. England. The Essential Guide to Handling Workplace Harassment & Discrimination. 1 ed. Berkeley: Nolo, 2009. Print.

“Federal Case Highlights For XI-5.” US EEOC Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2010.

Kentucky: Kentucky Commission on Human Rights – Sexual Harassment.” Kentucky: Kentucky Commission on Human Rights – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2010.

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