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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism
  3. Last updated April 24, 2024

7 Hostile Work Environment Examples + Key Signs Your Workplace Is Unsafe

Go where you feel respected

Employee upset about hostile work environment
Photo courtesy of Alex Green

In every workplace, employees deserve to feel safe, respected, and supported. Unfortunately, there are instances when a work environment becomes hostile, making it challenging for individuals to thrive and maintain their wellbeing. Recognizing the signs of a hostile work environment is paramount to protecting your mental, physical, and emotional health—as is understanding the steps to address and mitigate such situations. 

What qualifies as a hostile work environment?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a hostile work environment is a workplace where employees are subjected to unwelcome conduct that is based on their race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. These are called protected characteristics. 

The conduct must be severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment or to interfere with an individual's work performance. It might include:

  • Verbal abuse, such as insults, threats, or racial slurs

  • Physical abuse, such as assault or battery

  • Visual abuse, such as displaying offensive posters or photos

  • Sexual harassment, such as unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or sexual jokes

It's important to note that a single incident, unless it is extremely severe, may not be sufficient to create a hostile work environment. But we’ll explain how to assuage any hostility at work further on.

Read more: Your Toxic Workplace Checklist: 16 Signs the Culture Is Bad for Business

7 ramifications of a hostile work environment

A hostile work environment can have severe consequences for both employees and the organization as a whole. Some of the ramifications include:

  1. A negative impact on employee wellbeing: Employees subjected to a hostile work environment may experience stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. This can lead to decreased job satisfaction, absenteeism, and even physical health problems.
  2. Decreased productivity: When employees feel uncomfortable or threatened in their work environment, their ability to focus and perform effectively can be significantly impaired. This can result in lower productivity levels and a decline in work quality.
  3. High turnover rates: A hostile work environment often leads to high employee turnover as employees may choose to leave the organization rather than endure ongoing mistreatment. This can be costly for the organization in terms of recruitment, training, and lost productivity.
  4. Damage to the company's reputation: A reputation for fostering a hostile work environment can be damaging to an organization's brand and image. It may deter potential job applicants, customers, and business partners, leading to long-term consequences for the organization's success and growth.
  5. Erosion of trust and morale: A hostile work environment can erode trust between employees and management, as well as among colleagues. This can create a toxic work culture characterized by gossip, resentment, and a lack of teamwork.
  6. Loss of innovation and creativity: When employees are preoccupied with navigating a hostile work environment or fear retribution for speaking up, they are less likely to contribute ideas, collaborate with colleagues, or take risks. This stifles innovation and creativity within the organization.
  7. Legal consequences: In many jurisdictions, a hostile work environment may constitute harassment or discrimination, which can result in legal action against the organization. This can lead to financial penalties, legal fees, and damage to the organization's reputation.

Read more: Better Conversations: 8 Experts Answer ’How Do I Voice a Contradictory Opinion at Work?’

10 key signs of a hostile work environment

Intuitively, you might already know that you work in a hostile environment. You could feel uncomfortable or unsafe at work or afraid to speak up or participate in meetings. Your work performance might be declining, and you could have symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or headaches.

But beyond how you physically feel, there are also key signs to take note of that could indicate your workplace is hostile—and knowing them might help to validate what your gut already understands. 

1. There is discrimination or harassment

Your workplace has consistent patterns of discriminatory behavior, including offensive remarks, slurs, or jokes targeting a specific individual or group.

2. Employees experience bullying or intimidation

You or your coworkers experience frequent belittling, verbal abuse, or threats that undermine confidence and wellbeing.

3. Your leaders or managers criticize excessively

Projects or people face unwarranted, constant criticism or micromanagement that obstructs productivity and damages morale.

4. Groups, teams, leaders, or managers isolate or exclude others 

You notice purposeful exclusion or isolation of individuals, preventing them from participating in meetings, discussions, or social events.

5. There are unfair policies and practices

Whether formal or informal, the company has discriminatory policies or practices that disproportionately affect certain individuals or groups.

6. Employees face retaliation for standing up for themselves

You are aware of punitive actions or threats against employees who report discrimination, harassment, or other workplace issues.

7. Sexual harassment

Employees deal with unwanted sexual advances, comments, or actions.

8. You experience hostile communication

Colleagues or superiors use aggressive, insulting, or offensive language.

9. Some people advance, while others don’t

In line with unfair policies and practices, there’s consistent denial of opportunities, promotions, or pay raises based on discriminatory practices.

10. Fear and anxiety are ingrained in company culture

You feel a prevailing sense of fear, stress, or anxiety among employees due to hostile behavior or toxic work culture.

Read more: A Toxic Workplace Can Be Fixed

7 examples of a hostile work environment to help you pinpoint the behavior  

Scenario 1

Sarah, a talented employee, consistently receives derogatory comments about her age from her supervisor. The supervisor belittles her by making ageist jokes and dismisses her ideas based on her age.

Scenario 2

At a manufacturing plant, a group of men constantly makes sexist remarks and inappropriate jokes about their women coworkers. The women feel uncomfortable and intimidated.

Scenario 3

Jason, the only Black person in his department, notices that his colleagues consistently exclude him from team meetings and important projects without any valid reasons. He feels isolated and marginalized.

Scenario 4

Amanda, an employee with a disability, faces constant ridicule and mockery from her coworkers who question her abilities. They deliberately assign her tasks that are beyond her capabilities, creating a hostile and discriminatory work environment.

Scenario 5

A supervisor consistently targets one employee, Michael, with excessive criticism and micromanagement. The supervisor constantly monitors his every move, undermining his confidence and hindering his productivity.

Scenario 6

In a male-dominated industry, a woman employee named Emily experiences frequent sexual advances and inappropriate comments from her male colleagues. Despite her objections, the behavior continues.

Scenario 7 

The management team consistently denies promotions and pay raises to employees based on their religious beliefs. Employees who follow different religious practices are systematically discriminated against, leading to a hostile work environment based on religious bias.

What to do if you work in a hostile work environment

If you believe you are working in a hostile environment, take action to protect yourself and your career from any unforeseen damage. The steps you can take to address a hostile work environment include: 

  • Documenting incidents: Keep a record of all instances of hostility, including dates, times, descriptions, and witnesses involved.

  • Reviewing company policies: Familiarize yourself with your company's policies regarding discrimination, harassment, and reporting procedures.

  • Talking to the person: If you’re comfortable, address the person creating a hostile work environment, providing clear boundaries and expectations for how you wish to be treated at work. Document this exchange.

  • Reporting the situation: Inform your supervisor, human resources, or a designated authority figure about the issues you are facing, following the appropriate reporting procedures.

  • Seeking support: Talk to a trusted colleague, friend, family member, or therapist about your experiences to gain perspective and emotional support.

  • Seeking legal advice: If your concerns are not addressed or if you face retaliation for reporting, consult with an employment attorney to understand your rights and legal options.

  • Engaging in mediation or counseling: Consider seeking mediation or counseling services to address the conflict and find resolution.

  • Networking and seeking new opportunities: You shouldn’t have to leave your job, but you might need to. Explore professional networks and job opportunities outside your current workplace to create alternative options for yourself.

  • Filing a complaint: If internal channels do not yield results, file a complaint with the appropriate external agency, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

  • Leaving: If all attempts to address the hostile work environment fail, it may be necessary to consider leaving for the sake of your wellbeing and professional growth.

Throughout, be sure to maintain professionalism. Continuing to perform your duties to the best of your abilities protects your own professionalism and integrity.

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