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Small Business Management – How to Handle a Hostile Work Environment

June 20, 2016

In a perfect world, everyone would get along with everyone else. We’d all come in to work on time, get our work done, collaborate with co-workers to advance the business, and wave a cheery, “Good bye!” at the end of the day. But that simply isn’t the way it goes most of the time. Every job and every business has its drawbacks, but what happens when the work environment becomes truly toxic?

You may have set up your business initially to include a nice office, a business plan, infrastructure and business insurance to protect bodily injury and/or equipment. However these things can’t always predict what the environment will become due to the personalities and attitudes of the people who will work there. A hostile work environment is one in which the employee is harassed or fears going to work due to the atmosphere being intimidating, oppressive or offensive. The employee may feel as though their manager or harasser is intentionally making them miserable so they will quit. Workplace bullying has become an issue for employers and a topic of conversation over the past decade and needs to be anticipated and planned for since it can develop into a serious situation.

A tale of a hostile environment

Consider the scenario of a woman hired to work in a small company that, prior to her arrival, employed only men. The three men she worked closely with had a habit of circulating sexually explicit cartoons and jokes by email. They would then discuss these messages in the workplace.

When the woman objected to these conversations, she was told she was overreacting and she needed to ‘man up.’ Once she verbalized her discomfort, she found that the number and explicitness of the conversations increased. She found it nearly impossible to concentrate on her work under these circumstances.

She told her supervisor, who approached the entire group, including the woman, and instructed them to ‘knock it off.’ The response of the men in the department was to curtail their comments when the boss was around, but to increase the harassment when he wasn’t. They went so far as to use the woman’s first name in the ‘jokes’ and edit the cartoons to include her picture.

This woman would certainly have prevailed in a discrimination lawsuit against her employer. The harassment met the legal definition of a hostile work environment, which includes these three criteria:

  1. The actions, communication or behavior of a manager or co-worker is in conflict with the employee’s reasonable expectation of a comfortable work environment.
  2. The behavior is discriminatory in nature, as identified by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). That is, the worker is being singled out because of their race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
  3. The hostile behavior is pervasive and severe, and interferes with the victim’s work performance.

Here’s what her supervisor should have done:

  1. A policy against harassment should have been in place, and communicated in the employee handbook. If it was not in place before the woman was hired, it should have been communicated prior to her first day.
  2. As soon as the harassment was reported to the woman’s supervisor, the offending employees should have been formally disciplined. The first step should have included a written warning and increased supervision.
  3. The supervisor should have followed up with the woman to make sure that the harassment had stopped. If it had not, the offending employees should have been dismissed.

Fixing a hostile work environment

  • Prevention: Preventing a hostile work environment is more effective than trying to correct one. Specifically address harassment with your employees, and make sure they know that it will not be tolerated. Make sure everyone in your company knows they can come to you if they have an issue with a co-worker.
  • See the signs: If someone does approach you with a complaint against a fellow employee, don’t ignore or dismiss it. Ask for specific examples of the behavior and document the conversation.
  • Take quick action: If the employee who is being harassed is a direct report of the harasser, move them to a different area or department if possible.

When you are made aware of an allegation of harassment, you must conduct an investigation into the report to determine If the harassment meets the three criteria above. If it does, you must discipline or terminate the harasser.

A harassed employee can file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. In order for a claim of harassment to stand up in court, the harassment must be due to a protected trait; that is, race, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, religion, disability, age (over 40), or genetic information. Keep in mind that these are conditions that will hold up in court. An employee can still sue if discrimination is not present, but they likely won’t win unless the can show that they were discriminated against for one of these reasons. But even if you prevail in court, a lawsuit can be distracting, time consuming and expensive for your business.

How would you handle a hostile work environment? Tell us is the comments below.