In any career or industry, dealing with a hostile work environment can make things stressful for employees and employers alike.

It’s crucial to know if your place of business is currently fostering a hostile work environment so you can recognize the signs. Equally as important is understanding how to train your employees, so that everyone remains in compliance and combats this type of behavior.

Read on to learn more about recognizing the signs as well as what you can do about it to create a better work environment for all.

What Does a Hostile Work Environment Mean?

While the term “hostile work environment” is often used loosely. It generally means that the place of business fosters an environment when employes feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimated. These feelings are usually a result of unwelcome conduct, and often they’re a result of company culture.

In order to define this more clearly, you’ll need to draft a policy that determines what specific types of conduct are unwelcome in your place of business. You should also try to understand what the frequency or severity of the conduct is within the workplace.

Most important is the ability to know what the actual signs are of a hostile work environment. As a business owner or manager, your leadership can help to change the company environment in order to promote a calmer, friendlier, and more peaceful place.

It’s absolutely crucial to spot the signs of a hostile work environment and then implement policies before it gets out of hand. If you don’t, you could be vulnerable to serious legal action from past and present employees.

Defining Unwelcome Conduct

The term “unwelcome conduct” is somewhat subjective, but it does have legal implications in some cases.

True unwelcome conduct includes:

  • harassment
  • victimization
  • discrimination
  • sexual harassment
  • violent behavior in the workplace

Sometimes, offensive behavior and inappropriate actions that seem innocent enough are completely unwelcome by others. This can result in the hostile work environment you’re trying to avoid.

If an employee makes a sexist or racist remark toward a fellow coworker, the problem should be addressed immediately. A single off-hand comment may not create a hostile work environment, but allowing it to continue will.

The goal is to prevent this unwelcome conduct from happening in the first place and to implement a zero-tolerance policy. Repeated unwelcome behavior by individuals should result in punitive action all the way up to termination if it’s deemed necessary.

Recognize the Signs

People who come to work every day and experience a hostile work environment may display signs that there’s a serious problem. For example these are some of the signs:

  • employees who are constantly “burned out”
  • frequent arguments among employees
  • constant complaining about pay
  • other work-related issues

To be more clear, there are several specific things to be aware of when recognizing these very serious signs. The first and most common is sexual or racial harassment which can include insults or vulgar comments about someone’s gender, race, or sexual orientation. It may also involve sexual harassment by way of unwanted advances or comments about a member of the opposite sex that makes the other person feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. 

Behavior that demonstrates bias and discrimination is another key part of a hostile workplace. Companies that don’t hire workers based on sex, race, religion, and other identifying factors are clearly in violation of anti-discrimination policies. People of a different race or religion may feel bias by way of lower pay, fewer hours, or simply by clear favoritism shown to others at work.

Businesses dealing with constantly aggressive behavior from higher-ups is a serious red flag. Yelling at workers, threatening others, or passive-aggressive behavior can all be considered workplace hostility. In general, threatening behavior, ridiculing or humiliating others, and using insults should never be tolerated in any workplace.

If your employees are filing complaints with HR about supervisors and their behavior, there is definitely a problem lurking that needs to be addressed. Pay close attention to the attitudes of your employees and offer an open-door policy where people can discuss concerns without fear of negative repercussions.

If you, your coworkers, or management seem to be miserable or if people seem to be “afraid” or uncomfortable every time they’re at work, you could be in the midst of a hostile work environment. Be aware of others who are using slander toward their coworkers, those who make fun of people, or those who are disrespectful to their fellow colleagues.

Training and Prevention

In order to ensure a positive and safe work environment, training and prevention are absolutely imperative. First, you need to create a comprehensive policy that clearly spells out the definition of harassment and other factors that go into creating a hostile work environment. However, a clear company policy is not always enough to ensure that your business is in full compliance with anti-harassment laws.

Not every state currently has requirements for sexual harassment training. However, these laws are likely to change as the issue becomes more prevalent in the media, and more states are taking part.

In order to get a good start, there are some simple things you can do to work on your company’s anti-bullying and anti-harassment training. First and foremost, all training should include the definition of sexual harassment under the Fair Employment and Housing Act and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The type of conduct that clearly defines things like bullying, discrimination, and sexual harassment should also be included in your training. Remedies available for victims of harassment or assault needs to be clearly stated in all policies and in your training.

Clear Plans and Strategies

Of course, you can’t prevent a hostile work environment without a solid strategy. Make sure your policy includes specific things you’re doing as a company as well as what individuals should be doing to prevent instances of harassment from happening in the first place.

Make it very clear to your supervisors that they have an obligation to report any form of harassment they encounter. Include a few examples of what bias and harassment look like, and how and when this behavior should be reported to Human Resources.

Victims of sexual harassment, racism, or discrimination must know exactly how to report it. They also need to know that any reports of harassment, etc. are done in total confidence without fear of losing their job.

Most importantly, employers have an obligation to address what they will do in order to address any harassing behavior. This should be clearly spelled out in your training, and it should also include what higher-ups will do if a supervisor is accused of harassment.

Not only does being in compliance protect your company from fines and other punishments, but it’s also crucial in order to foster a more supportive and positive workplace. When you have the proper training in place, every employee will be aware of what to look for. Also, they will know what to expect if they’re either a victim, or the person participating in unwelcome conduct.

Tracking Compliance

With new Sexual Harassment Prevention laws currently underway in many states, it’s vital that your company remains in compliance. You can enlist the help of a professional service that will work with you to track your current activities to ensure that you’re following the law at all times.

Simple and easy training will make it much smoother for everyone in your business to know the rules. When you create your policy and employees undergo training, make sure that they sign and date a statement acknowledging that they’re aware and willing to follow company rules.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to maintain a positive workplace and avoid a hostile work environment is to reassure those who report unwanted and unwelcome behavior. Come up with a confidential way that employees can make reports so they’re not coming to work in fear.

Open communication and an environment of equality is the best way to prevent everyone from having to deal with hostile behavior. Check your policy and training regularly, and make updates according to the law and as you see fit.

A Happy Work Environment is a Productive One

Through proper training and a zero-tolerance policy, you can avoid becoming a hostile work environment where employees feel unwelcome. Work toward encouraging a place of business that promotes tolerance and understanding rather than one that allows behavior like sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying to thrive.

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