How to Know You’re in a Hostile Work Environment – and How to Get Out

If you work a regular 9-6 office job, you spend 40 hours a week at your desk (or 45 if you don’t go elsewhere for your lunch). Accounting for 25 days holiday a year, this means you spend a whopping 1,880 hours in the office annually. Some people will do a little more than that, some people a little less. Either way, this much is true: if your work environment is a hostile one, spending almost 2,000 hours a year there is going to take a serious toll on your health.

But, wait a second, what is it that makes an environment ‘hostile’? We’re usually quite good at telling these things in personal relationships – we don’t stand for poor treatment with romantic partners, and most of us would distance ourselves from friends and family who we consider to be toxic in some way – but realising those things in a workplace is sometimes a little trickier.

 

Signs to watch out for

According to the Legal Dictionary, the term ‘hostile work environment’ applies to “unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated in their place of employment.”

In order to figure out whether or not you’re in this sort of situation, there are a number of things you should be vigilant of.

 

Targeted harassment

Anyone can be a victim of targeted harassment, but usually it’s minority groups who find themselves worst affected. If you witness/are a victim of harassment at work based on your gender, race or sexual orientation, it’s evident that there are people there contributing to a hostile work environment. 

 

Discrimination

Like targeted harassment, discrimination usually affects people from minority groups – though this behaviour is likely to be less overt. It might take the form of excluding older employees from certain office activities, or consistently favouring men over women for promotions. This sort of attitude contributes to a hostile work environment because it fosters a culture of hierarchy in which some people are worth more than others. 

 

Aggression

Even if the aggression is not targeted at you, having an aggressive person/people in your place of work creates an unhealthy environment. It’s a mood that very quickly spreads, meaning that – before you know it – people that are usually calm and level-headed can be at each other’s throats over issues that should be settled calmly and civilly. 

 

Bullying

As much as we’d like to think that people are above bullying by the time they leave school, that simply isn’t true. In many offices – especially those with a ‘bro’ work culture – teasing and bullying is commonplace, and employees may find themselves the victim of cruel jokes, covert emails and messages, or exclusion. 

 

General dissatisfaction

If you dread going into work every day and leave with the same sinking feeling in your gut, it could be because you’re part of a hostile workplace. Maybe you’re made to feel uncomfortable, or looked down on, or left out – and maybe you’ve been led to believe that you’re the problem. What’s more likely, though, is that your office culture is toxic, and it’s been subtly affecting your health over a long period of time.

 

How you can make a change

In many of these cases, there are laws to protect employees from serious consequences of hostile work environments. But, before any action can be taken, someone has to step up and actually address the problems at hand – and there are several ways of doing this.

 

Speak to HR

Human resources should be your first port of call for workplace incidents. Ideally, they should be impartial and unbiased, and can liaise between various office parties in order to see to the issue. HR staff should also be trained in the legal aspects of whatever issues are happening, and can advise you if further steps need to be taken.

 

Speak to executives

If, for some reason, you don’t feel comfortable speaking to HR (perhaps they are part of the problem), try speaking to senior team-members. They may have more influence than you, and can directly address troublemakers if they are junior members of staff.

 

Speak to the CEO

If a problem is particularly urgent, you may want to take it straight to the CEO. It might actually be that they are part of the problem, and you want to address the issue with them so they understand your point of view on what’s going on. 

 

Keep everything above board 

Whatever you do, make sure you take the proper channels. Don’t contribute to the problem by starting office gossip or taking matters into your own hands. In fact, if you have to, contact a lawyer and get their advice on the situation – that way, you can protect yourself from any fallout that may arise from trying to deal with the problem.

 

Save yourself

As a last resort, you should be prepared to leave. It’s horrible to say, but sometimes the problem is so much bigger than you can deal with, especially if it’s deeply rooted in the company culture. There are other jobs out there, you don’t have to suffer through a bad one needlessly. 

Ultimately, if you have the power to change things, you should. However, if you don’t – and that is a possibility – focus on your own self-preservation. Hostile work environments can be seriously damaging, it’s best to just get out any way you can. 

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