hostile workplace: it’s not what you think

If ever we needed a better name for a legal concept, “hostile workplace” is it.

“Hostile workplace” law isn’t at all what it sounds like: It’s not about your boss or your coworkers creating a hostile environment for you by being jerks.

To be illegal, jerky conduct must be based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.

Moreover, to violate the law, the EEOC says that this conduct — which, again, must be based on race, religion, sex, or other protected characteristics — “must be severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” They also explain, “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.”

In other words, if your boss or your coworkers are just jerks but it’s not based on your race, religion, sex, or other protected characteristic, that’s not illegal. Unwise and unkind, but not illegal.

Unfortunately, the term “hostile workplace” doesn’t make this clear on its face, and the wrong interpretation gets reinforced by things like this Wikipedia entry, which is flat-out wrong. (Really, Wikipedia?)

Go forth and stamp out its misuse wherever you find it.

Update: Since this post was published, a reader has fixed the Wikipedia entry. Thank you!

{ 118 comments… read them below }

  1. Holly*

    I’m assuming the owner telling my manager that “Asians don’t have feelings” while person being referenced is on the phone isn’t pervasive enough. Or making a joke about African Americans in front of our black HR employee. Or…


      1. dejavu2*

        Exactly. This is why documentation is so important. Keeping a dated journal in which you record the incidents as close to their occurrence as possible is a good idea. Though the direct usefulness of the journal in court may be limited, it can help your lawyer know what to look for and what to argue if things get that far. Also, retaining copies of emails, memos, documentation showing unequal treatment for people with different protected characteristics, etc. Unfortunately, some businesses manage to protect themselves from lawsuits by maintaining poor records. So, if you’re thinking of pursuing legal action, get your hands on whatever documentation you can before drawing attention to yourself by complaining or quitting.

        1. Lyssa*

          Make notes of who could have heard these statements, too – if this were to come to legal action, they would be important witnesses to depose and possibly testify.

        2. Alma*

          It goes without saying, keep the journal or calendar on your person (not in a file in your desk) or on your own electronic device that does not work off the server at work.

    1. Mr. Pink*

      The real danger in these type of statements is that, even if they don’t rise to the level of a HWE (and depending on the comment, they might), they still can be evidence of discriminatory animus, and give the employees ammunition for a lawsuit whenever they suffer an adverse employment action. If the employee is fired, or reassigned, or disciplined, they have immediate reason to file a complaint and say that the REAL reason for the action is the manager’s prejudice toward (Asians, African Americans, etc.).

  2. fposte*

    I’d add “wrongful termination” to this. It doesn’t mean you were terminated for the wrong reasons.

    1. AMD*

      A useful addition to this website might be a dictionary/glossary of terms, including things like wrongful termination, hostile work environment, harassment, the difference between fired and laid off, etc.

      1. Nobody*

        Great idea! I would add to that:

        – Discrimination (it is illegal only if it is based on protected characteristics)

        – Retaliation (it is illegal only if it is for a protected activity like filing an EEOC complaint; there is no law prohibiting retaliation for screwing up your work!)

        – Protected class (protection from discrimination based on a protected characteristic, not protection of all minorities from ever getting fired)

      1. Big Tom*

        It’s tied in with the same issues as hostile work environment – it’s termination based on those protected classes such as age, race, national origin, sex, religion, etc.
        For example, it’s not “wrongful” to terminate an employee for bad or stupid reasons such as not liking the Packers, but it IS “wrongful termination” to fire an employee because they’re from Lebanon, or because they aren’t the same religion as you.

        1. jordanjay29*

          This is why I think we really need to make sexual orientation and gender identity into protected classes. No one should be fired because of who they are.

        2. fposte*

          Also: it’s not wrongful termination to fire you because I thought you did something wrong that you really didn’t do.

          It absolutely should mean that, because that’s how anybody would parse the phrase if they didn’t know the legal meaning. But it doesn’t.

          1. Sascha*

            Sounds like “discriminatory firing” would be better, but of course that comes with all the misunderstandings of what “discriminatory” means. But maybe that’s less fraught with confusion than “wrongful” is.

            1. fposte*

              Yes, I would really love to go back and make them use different terms. Too late now, unfortunately.

      2. HR Mgr*

        Discrimination is only one of the categories that defines wrongful termination. The others are: Written Promises, Implied Promises, Breaches of Good Faith and Fair Dealing, Violations of Public Policy, Retaliation, Fraud, Defamation & Whistle Blowing.

        1. Sigrid*

          Could you expand on the “Written Promises” and “Implied Promises”? Like Sasha, I’d Google, but I’m afraid I’ll get a bad source.

      1. the gold digger*

        TV had the legal secretaries on “The Good Wife” wanting to unionize so they could get paid OT for working over 60 hours in a week.

        TV also thinks that all someone needs in the winter in Chicago is a pretty coat and cool high heels.

        1. Adonday Veeah*

          TV also thinks that relatively low-paid workers live in professionally decorated and otherwise awesome apartments with amazing views.

        2. davey1983*

          So many things wrong with how TV portrays certain things. The one thing that always got me was how it showed people living in tornado alley dealing with tornadoes– apparently people freak out about tornadoes and run around scared to death.

          Yet, in reality, most people living in tornado alley find tornadoes boring and don’t give them much attention unless the tornado is projected to hit them (and then, it is just wondering down to your basement and being bored for the next hour).

        3. Juli G.*

          I live near Chicago and I wear pretty coats and high heels all winter. If I have to deal with snow,I’m gonna look good. :)

  3. maggie*

    OMG! I remember going through some TERRIBLE workplace bullying and looking up that exact article trying to determine if what was happening to me was as severe as I thought it was. It did successfully get me to talk to HR about it, and put the issue on the person’s record (rightly so). I didn’t, thankfully, go further with it outside of quickly leaving my job soon after. Glad I didn’t take it literally.

    That said, I really wish it WERE illegal to be jerks at work. So unnecessary (although so subjective too, which I now understand better after Hildi’s post yesterday).

    1. Bea W*

      I was in a workplace where the Big Boss was a nightmare bully. It was the dictionary definition of “hostile workplace environment”, just not the legal definition. Not being able to use the term “hostile” to describe it was difficult because it was just truly hostile. It was toxic also, but when clients are allowed to yell and cuss and employees are yelled at and cut down in public and private by senior management not to mention undermined and set up, “toxic” just doesn’t adequately describe the hotbed of hostility it really was.

      1. sam*

        my first boss was also a nightmare bully of epic proportions, but as we liked to say, he was an “equal opportunity bully”. Men seemed to last longer in the department, if only because they seemed to be able to not take his bullying quite so personally (or it would take longer for it to really get to them). But that wasn’t for lack of intent on the bully’s part.

  4. Adam*

    While it is such a therapy word, it’s why I’ve more frequently adopted the word “toxic” in reference to situations like this. Toxic relationship, toxic workplace, toxic food, etc. The thing about toxicity is that it doesn’t have to be overt or immediate in order to be bad for you. And with toxicity while it can be recognized as being a rotten situation, with a firm head on your shoulders it can often be endured long enough for you to create a better situation for yourself and then leave it all behind.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      Good point! When I have realized and acknowledged that something is toxic for me I think that is the turning point and I still have the power and energy to make the appropriate changes to move in a better direction.

  5. Artemesia*

    This is such a good point. I remember our admin staff getting in a huff about a rude co-worker and threatening to report ‘hostile workplace’ — I had to let them know that unfortunately being a jerk was not what this was about. I think this is a common misunderstanding.

  6. Amber Rose*

    The government is not very helpful providing clear definitions for this stuff. I tried to find out if intolerable conditions at work would allow me to quit and go on EI while I job hunted (in Canada). It technically doesn’t have to reach illegal conditions for that much, but it’s not clear what would be good enough reason. It’s terribly vague.

    1. Earl*

      There’s a reason there is no clear definition. In these employment matters, whoever has the burden of proof usually loses. Congress and the Courts have deliberately set it up this way to make it an unclear fact situaion that must go to a jury. It’s as hard to prove discriminatory motive as it is to disprove it. So, if the employer has the burden to disprove discriminatory motive, it will often lose. An equal opportunity jerk–the “mean boss”–must disprove, for example, that he yelled at a female subordinate because she was a woman (very simplistic example, I concede). Get a jury with 8-12 female jurors, and you begin to see the problem for defendants. You can subsitute any other protected class member in the example for similar analysis.

      If the employee complaining of the hostile environment had the burden, he/she would have a difficult time proving it. If there were hard, concise definitions of what was prohibited, then “mean” supervisors or co-workers would use another word or tone of voice to convey the same hostility but be insulated from responsibility because they didn’t use one of the prohibited terms.

      So, no hard and fast definitions and leave it up to a jury to determine “reasonable.” These are just congressional policy decisions that have evolved over time. Whether you approve or disapprove usually depends on your political disposition; or whether you are an employer or an employee. There are many more of the latter sitting on juries.

      Essentially, being mean has been made unlawful. Most folks can attribute the meanness they experience to one or more of the protected classes they belong to. One thing is for sure: Plaintiffs’ lawyers who represent employees; and defense lawyers who represent businesses, love the uncertainty…and human nature.

  7. HR Pro*

    Thank you, Alison, for writing this! The definition of hostile work environment is a common misconception that we in HR sometimes struggle against.

  8. DMC*

    As an attorney who works in HR, I agree. The vast majority of the employees who complain about a “hostile work environment” do so because of the following reasons:
    1) they received discipline
    2) their supervisor was short with them
    3) they don’t like their supervisor in general
    4) another coworker has made mildly rude comments to them or made comments that they overheard and thought might be about them

    And then when they complain to HR, they think that means they are protected from any further discipline and their supervisor will be fired.

    Of course, some employees genuinely are affected by a hostile workplace that rises to meet the legal standard, and even if they aren’t, they may be in an unhealthy workplace with some concrete issues that would benefit from intervention. However, jumping to accusations like “sexual harassment,” “discrimination,” or “hostile work environment” for every little workplace insult really damages one’s credibility and muddies the waters for future complaints that may actually be more actionable.

    1. M-C*

      Then again there’s the work environment where your coworkers are feeling hostile because you’re being a jerk.. Not universal, but we’ve certainly seen a few instances come by, alas.

      1. DMC*

        The human factor is inescapable. Sometimes the complaining employee really does work with jerks, unfortunately. Sometimes, the complaining employee IS the jerk. The Supreme Court reminded us that Title VII is not “a general civility code.” But most companies (and some states) have rules that prohibit certain problematic behaviors (such as the use of profanity, name-calling, etc.), even if the behavior doesn’t rise to the level of being legally actionable. HR’s job is to help managers do their jobs managing employees and stay within the confines of the law and company policy– that sometimes means taking action against managers that are violating company policy and the law. Other times, it means stepping back and letting good managers do what we pay them to do–manage people.

    2. some1*

      Maybe it’s because my first professional job was a Union job in government, but I have never understood why people go to HR for every day disagreements with their coworkers.

      1. Windchime*

        I also wonder this. Maybe it’s because of the culture of my workplace, but the first thing that we do here (after speaking with the coworker, of course) is to talk with our supervisor/manager about issues or problems. Going straight to HR would be reserved for times when the Manager *is* the problem, or when the Manager refuses to deal with a serious problem. Going to HR is seen as an escalation move in my company.

      2. Adonday Veeah*

        A good HR person will send people back to work out their own everyday disagreements with their co-workers. We are not their mommies.

    3. neverjaunty*

      While I don’t disagree, the flip side is that you also do not want employees to be afraid to report problems – especially small problems that are signs there might be a bigger problem. Nobody wants to be in the middle of dealing with a serious harassment incident only to find out that the offender has been getting away with lower-level stuff for years, only nobody complained because they were afraid they would be laughed at or branded “troublemakers”.

      (And of course there’s also the little game where if an employee waits to report behaviors he’s told “well why didn’t you say something before it got to this point?”)

      1. justine*

        I’m sensitive to some of these comments since I’m going through the EEO process now and it hasn’t been easy to get to this point. My toxic/hostile/discriminatory work situation has been going on for more than a year. It’s hasn’t been a secret that i was targeted by a coworker, but no one, including me, wanted to be her “mommy.” I think managers should, if needed, play the mommy role if they keep someone on their team who needs guidance.

        If i say to someone who abuses me “Hey, i notice you’re been giving me a hard, do you want to talk about that?” I don’t think I’m going to make a positive difference.

        Now if their manager says “Hey, i notice you’re giving Justine a hard time, do you want to talk about that?” I would hope they would either say yes and then maybe a real issue for the conflict will come out and work toward being resolved. Or, they’ll say no, but know their bad behavior is noticed and stop it.

        That’s my 2 cents.

  9. AnonaBoB*

    And yet, no one in HR goes “All the employees under poo-poo manager claim 30% more sicks days than peer group. And 25% of their department have pending or finalized On The Job stress or anxiety related illness, OSHA is going to tear us in half.”

    1. DMC*

      If 25% of department filed stress-related work comp claims, that would catch a company’s attention.

  10. jordanjay29*

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article. I hope we commenters can share this with future people on AAM to educate them when mistakes occur.

  11. Lisa*

    What about threatening behavior that isn’t about race, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information?

    As in my dad’s old boss used to plays with knives in front of him, and threaten to stab him if he didn’t do something his way. He then started bringing a gun to work and pointing at my dad’s head. He would pull the trigger too, unloaded. Still hostile. But the state did nothing. They worked for the state. My dad eventually took stress leave unpaid for 4 months. The state did their investigation, and said that there was nothing they could do. HR actually told my dad they were afraid of the boss when they had to interview him, and that the decision to let my dad go was based on the bosses reaction if they sided with my dad. REALLY? The boss end up having a massive stroke and died a few months later. The state called my called and he his job back when this happened.

    1. Ineloquent*

      I think you could lodge a criminal complaint on this one, actually. That sounds like criminally threatening behavior to me (not an expert).

      1. Lyssa*

        Agree that this is a criminal matter – threatening someone with a deadly weapon (gun or knife) is generally considered aggravated assault or similar (different states use different terminology) – it’s often a felony.

        Considering that this was a state employee, I would also have recommended (I know this is too late) going to the media – I’m sure that the local news or newspaper would love to have a “your tax dollars at work” story like this, as long as it was verifiable (you’d need multiple witnesses).

        1. Lyssa*

          Oh, and assault* would also support a non-employment related civil suit, as would intentional infliction of emotional distress (this requires a very high level of emotional distress, not just someone being a rude jerk, but what’s described here could potentially quality). These aren’t employment issues – they would apply if it were anyone else, not just an employer.

          * Commonly misunderstood legal note: “Assault” describes putting a person in reasonable fear of offensive contact; “Battery” describes the actual offensive contact. For example, if Tom throws a baseball at Bob, who sees it coming and ducks out of the way, that is assault but not battery; if Tom throws it at the back of Bob’s head and Bob never sees it coming, that is battery but not assault.

          1. LBK*

            It took me years to find out that assault meant a threat, not actual violence. I think it’s because the phrase “assault & battery” is so common that people don’t realize they aren’t equivalent terms, or that one can occur without the other.

            1. fposte*

              It also varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But honestly, I don’t think people should worry about parsing it–if you’re being physically threatened, call the cops, and let the details get sorted out afterwards.

          2. Omne*

            Depends on the state, for example the law in my state doesn’t mention battery at all. The crime is simply assault whether the act is to cause fear or is actually inflicting bodily harm.

          3. Squirrel!*

            Actually, your first example is still battery, it’s just attempted battery because it didn’t connect. Moving out of the way of an attack doesn’t change the fact that someone attempted an attack. Assault would be if Tom told Bob he was going to throw a baseball at him to hurt him.

    2. DMC*

      That’s actually likely a crime in that jurisdiction (i.e., police). Yes a company should fire any employee who pulls out a gun, loaded or unloaded, and points it at an employee. In most companies, just bringing any gun to work would be a violation of policy (you know, unless you’re a police officer, or something).

    3. Guava*

      Yes, I was wondering this same thing. I used to work for someone who would throw computer equipment out the window (and into the parking lot two stories down, where people were walking and all of our cars were parked) in fits of frustrated rage. This guy would phone in bomb threats to clients who were in arrears – he was actually investigated for this by the FBI while I worked there. He would pass cars in the shoulder of the highway when he was late to meetings, and engage in terrifying, road rage behavior while we were in his car. He also called detectives into the office to question employees for allegedly stealing his laptop, when in fact he’d left it in the trunk of one of his other cars. I’ve often wondered if any of that qualified as a hostile work environment. I often felt physically unsafe at that job.

      1. Zillah*

        I think it probably didn’t qualify as a hostile environment unless he was targeting people on the basis of their membership in protected classes – but that just means it wasn’t a quote “hostile environment,” not that it (or Lisa’s example – YIKES!) wasn’t illegal. IANAL, but what you’re both describing definitely sounds criminal to me (and possibly something you could sue the company for – just not because it was a hostile work environment, if that makes sense).

        1. Guava*

          In my case, the owner of the company was the issue, so there was no higher-up to go to…I solved the problem by leaving. The guy did make racist and homophobic comments all the time about other employees, but never went after me directly. Lisa’s example is just horrifying too. Interesting.

    4. neverjaunty*

      Employers like your dad’s are why my friends who sue on behalf of employees will always have jobs.

    5. fposte*

      As Alison notes, “hostile work environment” is about the illegal discrimination of the behavior; it really has very little to do with hostility *within* the workplace. The other problem with having the phrase lodge in your mind is that you don’t look past it for other ways to classify problematic workplace behavior. You and Guava are describing what sounds like crimes to me; I would call the cops if the bosses didn’t want to do anything. OSHA doesn’t seem to have any actual regulatory powers in this area, but they have a lot of materials about the problem of workplace violence and ways to prevent and deal with it. I might bring that into the conversation with higher-ups–“I’m concerned that our organization seems to be ignoring a demonstrable risk of workplace violence here.”

    6. Sherm*

      That boss could easily win the Worst Boss of the Year Award, but I don’t think it’s awarded posthumously.

    7. Artemesia*

      This sounds like assault to me. It is illegal to threaten someone with violence and I am guessing that pulling the trigger of a gun pointed at you would be construed as threatening. A state that allowed this to continue is run by incompetents. It isn’t a labor issue or an HR issue, it is a criminal issue. Too bad your father didn’t have incontrovertible evidence and didn’t make a complaint to the police about it.

  12. PowerStruggles*

    Are people getting hostile workplace and toxic workplace confused? I knew about the grounds for hostile because I recently had to research that for my bf but I don’t know the proper definition of toxic workplace so maybe that’s where people get tripped up?

    1. Helka*

      Well, I think it’s more that people aren’t necessarily aware that there is a difference between a Hostile Workplace (legally speaking) and a workplace that is hostile.

    2. fposte*

      As far as I know, there is no proper definition for toxic workplace, at least not in the US. It’s whatever people think it to be.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Toxic workplace isn’t a legal term, so it’s just a descriptor like most non-legal terms … meaning that you can use it however you want to, basically :)

    4. Mike C.*

      It doesn’t help the confusion issue that several nations do have regulations against workplace bullying.

  13. Case of the Mondays*

    Yes! I think I should turn this into a survey and when people call for employment law advice they should read this first and only proceed if they still think they meet the definition of “hostile.”

    1. jordanjay29*

      Even if they don’t meet the definition of hostile, aren’t there still cases of workplace conduct that have legal implications? Or workers who truly need a resolution and would make use of alternative resources being suggested?

      1. fposte*

        Mostly not on conduct, unless they’re actually crimes (which would make them a problem outside the workplace as well). In the U.S., workplace conduct isn’t something that gets legislated on its own.

        I’m not sure what you’re thinking of with “alternative resources.” If you’re in a union, you have whatever support your union offers in a resolution. But if you’re not, and your boss screams at you all day, you’re pretty much limited to going over her head to her boss or going to HR, and neither are required to make her stop. There really is no external mediation body, at least not at a national level.

      2. Case of the Mondays*

        Yes. There is still wrongful discrimination and termination. If you treat someone adversely for a protected class reason or fire someone for protected class reasons that is actionable even if the environment on its whole isn’t hostile. It was described to me this way – discrimination is your boss treats you like crap, overtly, because you are a woman. Says things to you we recognize as bad. Hostile work environment means they are fine to you but create an environment that is severe and pervasively negative to the protected class. Think the old auto shop with pics of scantily clad women and referring to female customers as the B word and talking about whether people got laid the night before and the size of various people’s chests. They may be perfectly kind to the female employee, treat her the same and pay her the same but the environment is still hostile to her. I should have clarified that the multiple choice question would be for people claiming hostile work environment.

  14. Grey*

    I left my last position and I received unemployment under it being a ‘hostile work environment’ and any sensible person would have left due to all options otherwise being exhausted.

    I was hired with a known disability at a hospital I received weekly treatment at and was given the reasonable accomadation of using my lunch period to attend by modifying my other lunch periods. Once I switched sections, under same supervision, but different doctor, I was asked not to leave my desk by the new doctor even when supervision said it was okay. If I did go to the appointment, the new doctor would make performance comments or state I could not leave. I couldn’t be moved to a different section without cutting my hours and the treatment was considered necessary and that was the only time it could be provided. The doctor wasn’t throwing things or too jerky, but somehow it was still considered hostile.

    1. HM in Atlanta*

      This fits the definition of hostile – discrimination based on a protected category (disability). Failure to allow you the reasonable accommodation IS discrimination. When you resigned, it would likely have been considered a constructive discharge (you were forced into resigning by illegal discrimination).

  15. Iro*

    I would rather not limit myself to only saying hostile if I felt it would meet the strict legal definition. For me it was theraputic to be able to say “I have a hostile work environment” when I was reporting to one messed up manager.

    This manager went as far as to lie to a co-worker and tell this person that I was meeting with HR for disciplinary actions and that she wanted to know if said co-worker had any grievences.

    I only found out about this, and numerous other gross lies and attacks agains me much later after that manager had left the company. Seriously, this “manager” (I don’t think she deserves the title) even went as far as to hold “pre team meetings” that she would hold with my co-workers to essentially goad and bully them into showing a united front against me in the “official team meeting” where I finally got invited.

    I only found out because one of those co-workers called me at home crying after she got another position because she felt horrible for lying about me. She told me she felt pressured by our manager and was afraid that if she didn’t throw me under the bus the manager would turn her ire towards her.

    That’s a hostile environement, even if I wasn’t the target due to race, age, sex, or being older than 40, or genetics. Unless they were to expand the age category (I was much younger than said manager but yet only 1 pay grade below her which I believe was the root cause).

    1. Iro*

      As an aside this happened many years ago and has a happy ending! Shortly after said manager left the company, I was given a major promotion (to a role more senior than said manager had been in no less) in a different department. I eventually ended up leaving that company to pursue work more in line with my family goals but, despite that managers best efforts, I was very successful there.

    2. fposte*

      I don’t think anybody deeply cares how people use the term in private conversation, any more than it’s a travesty of accuracy when you call your ex a “psycho” even if you’re not a trained mental health professional.

      The problem is that people misunderstand the term and believe that they are being treated illegally when they’re not, so it’s useful to know what the term means in the eyes of the law.

      1. fposte*

        It’s also worth noting that generally UI isn’t legally ruling on a hostile work environment per se; they’re just assessing whether things were horrific enough that an employee is still entitled to claim UI after a voluntary quit.

  16. Kathlynn*

    Okay, so “hostile work environment” isn’t just a US term. It’s used in many countries. Though it might not be the legal term used. The same with wrongful termination. And both of them are used in slightly different ways, depending on the country. For example, where I live in Canada, it is illegal to harass someone in the workplace, and it’s not limited to protected statuses (and we do have a concept of hostile work environment). And wrongful termination or dismissal is just stated as “without just cause”
    So, if the unedited version of the “hostile work environment” wiki wasn’t, and the wrongful termination wiki pages isn’t country specific, then there isn’t a reason to complain that it’s not US accurate.

  17. Scott*

    So would a racist, sexist, ageist cheap place to stay be a hostile hostel? — sorry, it’s Friday :)

  18. Hooptie*

    AAM – this is really interesting. We just had a training on Workplace Violence yesterday, and it appears that the OSHA definition of a hostile work environment may be different than the EEOC. According to the presentation (which was given by the police chief), OSHA can consider a combination of a whole list of things to be a hostile work environment. The list included starting rumors, dirty looks, talking over someone, and escalates from there. The OSHA site is down right now or I would try to find it. Can you verify? From what I understood OSHA will come down on an employer for allowing a hostile work environment due to concerns of it escalating to workplace violence.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      OSHA only deals with working conditions that present physical danger; they don’t deal with hostile workplace complaints at all. Unless there’s some totally obscure regulation that I’ve never heard about (but I’m not seeing it in a quick search), it sounds like that police chief got his facts wrong! It wouldn’t be the first time that an authoritative figure totally misrepresented employment law.

  19. Mouse of Evil*

    Oh, argh. I once got in an argument with a co-worker over sexist emails he was sending out over the department email list. I asked him to stop and he didn’t, and I made the mistake of telling him I felt that was “hostile.” I MEANT I felt that it was hostile to me, personally, that he didn’t stop when I asked him to, since we were friends and, until that point, quite congenial as co-workers. He heard it as a threat to report him for causing a “hostile workplace,” and he went to our boss to tell his side of the story in order to head off any complaints I might make. I never did; after that he stopped sending the emails (at least to me), so I considered the matter resolved and didn’t see a need to involve the boss. But since then, I’ve tried to avoid using any words in their “normal” sense at work if they also have a loaded HR-related meaning. :-)

  20. Anpersonymous*

    My coworker is from another country although she grew up in the United States. She is proud of her heritage and will gladly tell you she was born in that country. However, our company has forbidden her from working with one of the managers. The manager in question has a bit of a temper which is on the end of a short fuse. I have seen him get a bit snappy when people are talking in non-work related conversations. The scheduler – who does have some rank in this company – has used the excuse that her nationality’s attitude will conflict with his short temper, and therefore, neither will be scheduled to work with one another. This is not a rumor; this isn’t an exaggeration. I heard the scheduler say it loud and clear to my coworker. I think a few other coworkers heard it too. It wasn’t said on the down-low or in a private conversation. When I heard that, my mind thought of the lawsuit they just opened themselves up to (possibly). My coworker laughed it off, but I do think she felt a bit slighted by the remark.

    In the same company, another manager likes to use off-color phrases, especially some that cross gender lines. This one line he likes to use as of late I have heard before from family members, but I have never heard it in the workplace. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t know if it would be considered sexual harassment; thus far, it has been directed at me (although I understand that it doesn’t necessarily have to be directed at a particular person that overhearing it can be harassment in of itself).

  21. Not So NewReader*

    This stuff with word choice and the law drives me nuts. I have a lot of this in my life.

    Generally speaking, I take the word hostile in the commonly used sense. I think that most people have no idea that they are using a legal term with a legal definition. PLUS there is a huge need to be able to say “that is a HORRIBLE workplace”- technically speaking “toxic” could refer to environmental pollutants. I cannot tell a person with a black eye and a broken tooth that his work place is technically not hostile, after he has just told me what happened at work today.

    But the law does this with a lot of words, it takes a general word and narrows it down to a certain meaning. OR confusingly it can go the other way and take a term that means one thing to most people and use it in a general sense. Sodomy would be an example. (Sorry, it’s the one that comes to mind. I was just reading a law book. Long story.)

    Now look at the word “safe”. How many products out there declare they are “safe”. “Safe” has no legal definition- but people buy products that say “safe” on them because they think they have certain protections under the law. Nope, not there.

    So we need a way to say “workplace from hell” without using all these other words, plus not using the “hell” word. I truly believe that until we find another way of expressing it people will fall back on the “hostile” word because it comes to mind the quickest.

    Granted getting the legal definition out there is necessary, but it doesn’t help people figure out what TO say. “Oh my, work place is UNKIND”, just does not get the harshness of the situation across the listener. And “I’d rather have a root canal every day this year that work in that place one more day” just takes too long to say.

    Honestly, I hope we don’t correct posters for misuse of the word. I think it’s fine once their concerns have been addressed but not before. Pretty soon, we won’t have English we will just have legalese.

    FWIW, I think that racists and other similar folks are way out beyond “hostile” in the common use of the word. It upsets me that is the best word our law makers could come up with to describe such destructive, hate-filled behaviors.

    1. Student*

      One big problem with racism in particular is that it isn’t always destructive and hate-filled, in a sense that most other people witnessing it would recognize. We can look at something extreme, like a lynching, and nearly anyone will see it to be hate-filled and destructive (we can now; it wasn’t always thus).

      When Fred (white man) puts up Susan (white woman) for a promotion instead of Bill (black man) because Fred has more in common with Susan and gets along better with her, it’s not obvious (or necessary) that it’s racially motivated. But if part of the reason Fred doesn’t identify with Bill is because Bill is black, because Fred has internalized stereotypes and is intimidated / put off by Bill more than he would be with a white colleague, then that’s still racism. It’s still hurting Bill. Fred himself may not fully recognize that, though, or may come up with other justifications for never getting close to Bill so that he doesn’t have to admit to himself or others that race is a factor. Fred may be perfectly nice to Bill day-in, day-out, and work well with him, but never give him the small favors he might give a white colleague that he identifies with more.

  22. AK*

    I texted a friend about my hostile workplace this afternoon. I was in an office where my boss had left Kool and the Gang on repeat. No one will change my mind about the hostility of my workplace.

  23. Not telling*

    The timing of this topic is perfect for me. It has been a topic amongst staff at my workplace recently.

    We have one employee who regularly files complaints against people around her. Specifically against two people, one of whom reports for her. Most of the complaints are about non-performance related issues–not liking someone’s personal method of organization, not liking one person’s communication with other people in the office, blaming these employees for management-directed decisions, even one complaint about not liking someone’s personal items kept at their desk, etc. But they are routinely called into conference sessions to discuss the contents of the complaint. Both employees find themselves having to keep backup copies of every email they send, the time they spend on every task, and notes about every verbal informal conversation they have with this woman.

    The woman is close friends with one of the partners and while the partner insists that they keep their friendship separate from work, there is a reason why everyone is aware of the friendship–because this woman constantly reminds us that she is a close personal friend of the owner. She mentions this frequently whenever she is unhappy about something, and it feels like a veiled threat against everyone that she will file a complaint against us if we don’t do her bidding (even though we don’t report to her).

    The situation has risen to the point that the woman has been given strong verbal reprimands for her continued complaints, but apparently she has received no stronger repercussions than this. No overt disciplinary action has been taken against the other two employees but it’s hard to imagine that over time management doesn’t take a harsher look at them during performance review time, or that this isn’t the explanation why these two have not received a raise or bonus in two years (they’ve been told it’s just a cash-flow issue). The closest direct repercussion is comment for one of the employees that they needed to participate in office social and business development events more frequently (the individual avoids these because the hostile complainer is there and they don’t want to cause a scene).

    We all fully recognize that merely being a jerk doesn’t constitute hostile. But we wonder if this rises to the level of a hostile environment despite the lack of overt proof of any disciplinary action against us. Everyone in the office walks on eggshells trying not to attract her wrath. It’s cast a pall over the office. The woman has worked for the company for fifteen years; the complaints began about five years ago and in earnest (1-2x/week) for the past year. We are all praying she will retire soon, but we realistically can’t rely on this.

    So while ‘being a jerk’ isn’t ‘a hostile work environment’ is there anything less than actions relating to protected status that qualifies? Or is there another legal term that applies?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nope. To be illegal, it would need to be based on race, sex, religion, disability, or one of the other protected classes. Or it would need to retaliation for you reporting harassment or discrimination or engaging in some other legally protected behavior. It doesn’t sound like any of that is the case here. It sounds like you’re just working with a jerk and for managers who don’t manage.

  24. Employment Lawyer*

    As a matter of humor, I prefer the “AVVO Answers Definitions.”

    Wrongful Termination: I got fired.
    Discrimination: I am a minority and I got fired.
    Retaliation: I annoyed my boss and got fired.
    Harassment: Someone is bothering me. Or, someone yelled at me. Or, my boss publicly chastised me.
    Privacy violation: My employer is talking about me, even if its in response to something I asked them to discuss.
    Clearly illegal: This behavior really annoys me.


    1. librarian*

      Though it never came to formal complaints, I believe I was involved in a hostile working environment that would be tricky to prove under the law’s requirements. I worked in a large academic reference room where mostly men, mostly homeless, came in and used the public computers to look at obscenity. Now, that’s a hard one to prove, right? Obscenity v. pornography? The staff, mainly women, had to work just feet from a bank of computers where guys sat all day and looked at videos and images some of you wouldn’t believe. The same group caused occasional violent disruptions in the building. And our dean said it was intellectual freedom and we had no reason to feel threatened or stressed at work because of this behavior. It never had to go further because one of the guys found a computer outside the dean’s suite. Once it got into her world, new requirements and security measures went into effect. Around that same time, I believe librarians at a public library in Minnesota filed a lawsuit with similar behaviors, including some stalking, going on. Because most of us were female, most of the perps were male, (even if they were ‘just’ using porn not obscenity) what they were looking at involved mostly females in violently subjugated positions, I and coworkers did feel threatened and like our work space had become hostile, even if it was clients doing the actions, not coworkers.

  25. Willow+Sunstar*

    The problem with Wikipedia is that it can be edited by anyone. This makes some of the information in it biased and/or completely inaccurate. It’s why my grad school doesn’t allow sites like Wikipedia as a reference in papers.

  26. beckythetechie*

    So is it a hostile work environment to move an employee who has been told by an older male team lead that she is lazy and not cut out for the job into a position that makes him (hereafter M.) her direct report and then tell her to argue out complaints about M’s behavior with M. by herself?

    Is it also a hostile work environment to keep a different young female employee who answers to this same team lead reporting to him directly after he handles her report of a customer acting inappropriately (making suggestive comments about her figure) with “Well you should be used to that” and discussing his pornography viewing habits?

    I ask because while the team lead in question regularly talked down to me and took over customers I had no reason to need “assistance” with before I was eventually promoted over him, two other people where I used to work were subject to the aforementioned interactions and the General Manager swept the entire issue (M. treats the women he works with like second class citizens) under the proverbial rug… to the point that after leaving a letter of complaint from an employee where M. could see it, he tore up another written complaint in front of the victim and never spoke to M. about any of it. When we attempted to discuss the issues with M. directly we were treated to a full volume tirade about how unnecessary it is to be politically correct and we should just shut up and do our jobs instead of “overreacting” to his “jokes”.

    I’m no longer with that company as of Thursday, but I would love to see this misogynistic old asshole dismissed. I’m just signing out of any right to make that happen with my severance agreement. (I do plan to leave the paper trail I’ve accumulated regarding his behavior with one of the women stuck reporting to him so that she might have a chance of proving long-term issues if it continues to be overlooked by the general manager. My legal counsel says that’s about the limit of what I’ll be able to do.) If, in your estimation, the above would constitute “hostile work environment” in addition to sex-based discrimination (which this matches according to the definitions in the employee handbook) I’ll be passing the information on to the coworker in question along with my 2 1/2 notebooks of incidences from my tenure with the company.

    Glad to be gone, but terrified of not having a fall-back when I need one so quickly. But, one problem at a time, right?

  27. Sharon*

    So if my supervisor threw a bottle of aleve at me after just being extremely condescending would that be considered a hostile environment?

    1. Nobody*

      No, Sharon, unless she threw the bottle at you specifically because of your race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. It may, however, constitute assault.

  28. KKSheffield*

    I was terminated from 2 different employers due to constant harassment from an acquaintance who was not employed by either companies. He kept texting me at work even after several pleas’s from myself to stop. He wouldn’t. I couldn’t turn my phone off because I was a dispatcher and the company paid 75% of my phone bill and the drivers would call. They were both decent paying jobs. I saved all the text messages.

    Thank you

  29. greg*

    The one thing about workplace bullying and hostile work environment is you really have no chance. Corporate America is shady and sleazy, no better than the mafia. This country has been over for a long time and the more we the people let corporations get away with shady sleazy tactics, the more our quality of life will slide down the toilet.

    To be honest I think managers are scumbags, they are trained on how to protect the corporation even when the bullied, harassed employee\victim is 100% correct about what is happening! That is illegal on its own merit and I don’t care how it should be ‘classified’ because the classification of the harassment is a loophole for shady managers and corporations to get away with that kind of immoral crap in court or in arbitration.

    How the hell can we just stand by and let this happen is beyond me. America is supposed to be a great country with great jobs, technologies and people. In reality this country is turning into a god damn embarrassment run by thugs and white collar criminals ‘lawyers included’ and there isn’t any manager that can tell me any different.

    Spineless human garbage is all I deal with in the workplace when it comes to kiss asses and managers that cover their own ass even when they should be locked up in Jail for the crap they do on a daily basis. And another thing I worry about is the guy or gal that brings a gun to work to get even because of these shady pieces of crap.. Its not the good employees fault that crap like this happens, its the idiot managers and shitty corporations that allow this type of environment. I’m totally disgusted with this kind of garbage. These corporations need to be sued severely and managers need to be sued in civil suits as well so this kind of garbage is not tolerated!

    I know plenty of people that were wrongfully terminated because they had ass hat bosses or management.. WTH is wrong with this country nowadays! Even proving harassment, wrongful termination costs anywhere from 5 to 10k and who has that kind of money and leverage? Corporate America does, not the poor sap that has to slave away for them! Welcome to the new criminal corprica..

  30. Ama*

    The age thing is off base….40+. I am one of the youngest employees and am treated like complete shit by my older female colleague and it is obvious that my age factors in. Her comments about younger women is deplorable.

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