How business owners should handle a hostile work environment
In a perfect world, we’d all come in to work on time, get our work done, and collaborate with co-workers to advance the business.. But that simply isn’t the way it goes every time. There are hardships in every workplace, but what happens when the work environment becomes truly toxic?
You may think you have your business set up to run smoothly with such things as a nice office, infrastructure, and business insurance to protect against accidents. However, these things can’t always predict what the environment will become due to the personalities and attitudes of the people who work there.
A hostile work environment is one in which employees fear going to work due to the atmosphere being intimidating, oppressive, or offensive. This can sometimes be due to harassment. Read the 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment Study™ to learn more.
When the work environment is hostile, an employee may feel compelled to 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.
For more information about workplace bullying, listen to the 2nd episode of the Hiscox Podcast Series: Points of Courage.
A tale of a hostile environment
Consider the scenario of a woman hired to work at a new company. 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 her co-worker’s inappropriate behavior got worse, and it was nearly impossible for her to concentrate on 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The hostile behavior is pervasive and severe and interferes with the victim’s work performance.
Here’s what her supervisor should have done.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Mitigating a hostile work environment
Here’s how you can mitigate a hostile work environment at your business before it gets out of control.
- 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 business can only thrive in a good work environment where all employees are treated fairly. Use these guidelines to make sure your business stays ahead of the issue and fosters a healthy workplace.