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GuidesEmployee experienceWhat is a hostile work environment?

What is a hostile work environment?

Last updated

23 November 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

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According to the American law firm Jackson Spencer, a hostile work environment exists when “[T]he harassment is so severe and persistent that it alters your ability to do your job. The behavior must be more than just offensive; it must be objectively abusive.” Further, the harassment may come from anyone in your place of work—for instance, a supervisor, client, customer, or coworker. 

And you needn’t be the one directly harassed to be affected by a hostile work environment.

Protected characteristics and hostile work environment

In a strictly legal sense, a “hostile workplace” is distinct from a work environment in which your colleague or boss exhibits hostility by being petty, angry, rude, or offensive. 

Specifically, hostile behavior becomes illegal when someone with protected characteristics becomes the target of the hostility. 

For example, US employment law protects you from being discriminated against based on race, religion, national origin, physical disability, age, sex, or sexual orientation (the latter two are forms of sexual harassment).

Seeking to determine the severity of the behavior, a court will also assess how the conduct manifests, evaluating how persistent and pervasive the inappropriate conduct is.

Signs of a hostile work environment

Common signs of hostile work situations may include:

  • Recurring comments or jokes about a protected characteristic (such as age, sexual orientation, race)

  • The showing of offensive images or symbols

  • Threats or intimidation

  • Unwanted touching or physical assault

  • Sexual harassment

Remember that other legally valid signs of a hostile work environment may exist. The above are simply prevalent signs. Please seek expert legal advice if you endure any type of workplace harassment.

How to address a hostile work environment:

When faced with a hostile work environment, seeking qualified legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances and jurisdiction is essential. In the meantime, these guidelines can help you become familiar with strategies to respond to and navigate such a challenging situation. 

Here are three effective tactics to consider: 

1. Request a behavior change:

It is entirely appropriate to inform someone when their actions make you uncomfortable or upset and request that they cease their offensive behavior if it hinders your ability to perform your job effectively. Sometimes, the person responsible for the abusive behavior will stop once they understand how it negatively affects others.

2. Be candid and establish clear expectations:

You have every right to express your expectations about how you wish to be treated. Be vocal about what is acceptable and what is not, making it known that you will not tolerate offensive conduct.

3. Take decisive action:

While some individuals may cease offensive behavior upon request, others will unfortunately persist. Harassment can be intimidating, but you don't need to bottle your feelings. Do not hesitate to escalate the situation by reporting unacceptable behavior to your manager or supervisor. It's crucial to report hostile behavior promptly to prevent it from worsening. Use official channels, such as your managers, supervisors, or the HR department, to report inappropriate behavior.

10 examples of hostile behavior at work

Various behaviors that create a harmful and intimidating workplace atmosphere, such as 1. Offensive or derogatory comments based on race, gender, religion, or other protected characteristics.

2. Unwanted sexual advances, comments, or gestures.

3. Ongoing bullying or intimidation by coworkers or supervisors.

4. Discriminatory hiring, promotion, or firing practices.

5. Displaying offensive materials, such as posters or images, in the workplace.

6. Sabotaging a colleague's work or spreading malicious rumors.

7. Consistent unequal treatment of employees based on their protected characteristics.

8. Excessive and unwarranted monitoring or surveillance of employees.

9. Encouraging or tolerating a hostile atmosphere, such as racist jokes or offensive slurs.

10. Retaliation against employees who report harassment or discrimination.

Proving a hostile work environment

It’s usually necessary to take several steps before proving your work environment is breaching employment law. If you find yourself in a hostile work environment:

  • Document the incidents. Refrain from relying on a he said, she said scenario to make your case. If you are being harassed at work, keep detailed notes of what happened, including dates, times, and the names of any witnesses. Gather and save any evidence, such as emails, chat transcripts, text messages, or photographs. 

  • Report the behavior. If you feel you are a target of inappropriate behavior, immediately report the situation to a supervisor or HR manager

  • Document reporting the behavior. So you can reference it later, it’s wise to document when and to whom you reported the harassing behavior (including the outcome of making the report). Make notes and print copies of any digital correspondence, such as emails. 

  • Seek legal assistance. You always have the right to seek legal assistance. It’s crucial to consult with an attorney who can better help you understand your rights under the circumstances and help you take appropriate action if necessary.

While addressing these situations when they arise is essential, remember that sometimes the best choice is to leave the toxic environment. Your mental health and happiness matter; no one should endure a hostile workplace. 

Seek legal guidance, explore new career opportunities, and remember that you have the power to take control of your professional life. There are ways to create a healthier and more fulfilling work experience, so never hesitate to put your well-being first.


What’s often mistaken for a hostile work environment?

Not all uncomfortable workplace interactions are definitively illegal. In other words, someone at work might behave like a jerk. Still, to be considered a genuinely hostile work environment, the inappropriate behavior must meet specific criteria, namely that it is pervasive, abusive, and severe enough to hinder your ability to perform your job. The following scenarios are sometimes equated with hostile environments (but typically not illegal):

  • Disagreeing about or receiving a poor

  • A strict manager who is inflexible or demanding

  • Personality conflicts

  • A one-time angry outburst that’s neither pervasive nor abusive

  • Favoritism or teasing (as long as it doesn’t rise to the level of discrimination or sexual harassment concerning any of the aforementioned protected characteristics).

What’s the difference between quid pro quo vs. a hostile work environment?

"Quid pro quo," a Latin term meaning "this for that," typically refers to offering employees benefits, like salary increases or promotions, in exchange for favors or placing others at a disadvantage. Conversely, resistance may result in threats of adverse consequences. For example, a supervisor might threaten an employee with demotion, poor performance reviews, or even termination for refusing to comply with inappropriate demands. While quid pro quo harassment often pertains to sexual advances, it can extend beyond the sexual realm. For instance, as a hiring manager, if your superior instructs you to exclude a particular group of candidates, this constitutes an abuse of power and discrimination, thus potentially contributing to fostering a hostile work environment.

What's a hostile work environment in remote work?

A hostile work environment is not limited to physical offices; it can manifest in remote work. Some red flags include inappropriate jokes in email or chat forums, distributing offensive memes, or deliberate exclusion or ridicule based on protected characteristics.

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