In sexual harassment training programs, a hostile work environment or workplace refers to harassment by supervisors, managers, coworkers, agents of the company or organization, and customers and outside vendors. A hostile work environment creates a condition whereby the victim cannot work without feeling harassed or threatened. According to most legal definitions, Hostile Work Environment refers to harassment or discrimination that is a violation of a person’s civil rights.
Hostile workplace is the result of suppression of people’s natural ability to be expressive, the opposite of a workplace that promotes creativity and vitality. Such environments are unhealthy and potentially deadly to the people who work in them. Simply stated, hostile workplaces are deadly to productivity. Even people who witness harassment often have stress symptoms as severe as those who are the target of the harassment.
According to Dr. Suzette Elgin, hostility can make you sick or kill you! In her 1993 issue of Genderspeak: Men, Woman, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, she provides that hostile language hurts, frustrates, and confuses people; and the damage takes place slowly, over time, leaving scars that aren’t readily visible.
Hostility can consist of verbal abuse against any person over political or territorial boundaries, enforcement of ineffective or unreasonable rules for the sole purpose of exerting power over others or to impede progress, one-up-manship and excessive competition, and power plays and challenges issued over imagined threats to a person’s authority. Hostility can also manifest in attempts to squash a person’s ability to be creative and do their work in a way that is most productive for the individual. Even non-verbal threats can be hostile overtures.
In a 1998 US Supreme Court Ruling clarifying guidelines about harassment, it was noted that employers are responsible for harassment engaged in by their supervisory employees. When the harassment results in some tangible employment action (e.g., discharge, undesirable reassignment, or demotion) the employer’s liability is absolute. The problem is, if the offender is employed by the company, the employer will often stand by the offender in order to escape liability. The Ruling was intended to assist the victim, but in reality, it can serve to further harm and frustrate the victim.
In a hostile workplace, people are unable to properly do their work or be their most productive. People that are unhappy, unhealthy, or angry do not work hard. Additionally, a hostile workplace can result in hostility toward the company’s productivity. It is, therefore, in the company’s best interest to practice prevention such as having a written policy against hostility, ensuring employee compliance, investigating reported threats of hostility, and designing a plan to deal with this epidemic issue.
What can make matters worse is when HR does little or nothing to aid the victim or even adds to the matter by supporting the victimizer. Companies need to act more responsibly in cases of hostile work environment complaints. A simple solution may be to transfer the victim to a suitable position within the organization, if that is desirable to the victim. It may be wise to separate toxic relationships.
When the employer does not act, problems arise that can wind up costing the employer more than employee performance, the cost can be a harassment lawsuit. The courts are overburdened with such cases, and some attorneys have stated that they cannot bear to take another deposition on this issue.
Improving worker productivity often ranks highest in importance and lowest in satisfaction, indicating an area of major concern for many organizations. Employers are consistently trying to motivate, coach, beg, and sometimes threaten their employees into performance improvement. The solution may be as simple as providing a healthy work environment, that is free from hostile behaviors.