What Constitutes a “Hostile Work Environment”?

Over thirty million Americans have experienced what’s also known as a hostile work environment or hostility in the workplace, according to a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute survey. That’s over 19 percent of people affected, with another 19 percent having witnessed it, and around 63 percent of individuals aware that a “hostile” situation was happening in the first place.

For some, it can be be difficult to recognize what constitutes a hostile work environment. It could be a slew of things, including a bad boss, an unpleasant work environment, a rude coworker, lack or failure in a promotion, or lack or perks, privileges, benefits, according to The Balance. These issues can make the workplace pretty miserable for employees, and they can open employers up to financially and reputationally damaging employment practices liability (EPL) claims. That’s why it’s so important to catch work harassment early on and put a stop to it before it escalates to the level of legal action or worse.

Here’s a look at what constitutes a hostile work environment and how to best address hostility in your business.

Requirements Need to be Met

There is certain legal criteria that must be met when it comes down to a hostile work environment. First off, the environment must be created by a boss or another coworker whose actions, communication or behavior make doing your job impossible. This means your workplace has no longer become tolerable or comfortable.

Additionally, the behavior, actions, or communication must be discriminatory in nature. Workplace discrimination is monitored by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While a coworker loudly chewing food might not count for a hostile work environment, a boss berating a coworker based on age, gender, race, or religion might.

Legal Requirements

If the action discriminates against a protected classification such as age, race, religion or disability, it counts for a hostile work environment. Incidents must be reported to human resources, with the behavior lasting over a substantial period of time. If it is not investigated and addressed enough for the behavior to stop, it counts for a hostile work environment as well. Legally, the actions must be severe, heavily impacting the quality of other people’s work.

If the employer was aware of the situation and did nothing about it, they could be held liable for it.

How to Deal With Hostility

To start, there needs to be a way for employees to address the source of the harassment. This can be a difficult thing to do, so managers and HR should be prepared to intervene. In addition, many employees have trouble reporting harassment for fear of retaliation, so there should be a way for employees to confidentially and anonymously report hostility.

Once harassment has been reported, it's important to keep an eye out for further hostility and ensure that there are witnesses to this behavior. Hopefully once this employee is put on notice, the behavior will cease. In most cases, they will. If they do not, disciplinary action should be recommended, though it must be in accordance with company policies and disciplinary precedent in order to prevent the possibility of EPL claims coming from that side of the equation.

Whatever happens, try to get through the issue before it becomes a messy lawsuit, and before it causes your employees to experience personal trauma or leave the business. Once it gets to that point, it’s a whole other ball game. EPLI policies will provide protection against these claims, but it's always best to address these problems long before that becomes necessary.


About Axis Insurance

At Axis Insurance Services, we aim to help our customers identify their exposures and protect themselves. Founded in 1999, we offer insurance programs to a wide variety of professionals and industries including attorneys, real estate, healthcare, architects, and more, and also have a wholesale division. We pride ourselves on offering flexible insurance coverage tailored specifically to each customer’s needs. To learn more about our solutions, contact us at (201) 847-9175 to speak with one of our professionals.

employment practices liability insurance, EPLI, Harassment, employment practices, employment practices liability, Hostile work environment

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