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Hostility in the workplace : What it is, what it isn’t, and how to handle it

Courtesy of Ken Coleman

Did you know we spend a third of our lives at work? Our careers have a huge impact on our overall well-being and life satisfaction. So, if you’re experiencing a hostile work environment or being bullied at work, you owe it to yourself and those around you to take immediate action to put yourself, and your co-workers, in a better, safer place.

Bullies in the workplace can be anyone—coworkers, supervisors, contractors, clients—who behaves in offensive or aggressive ways. The common theme is the offender’s pattern of treating others with unwanted behaviors or disrespect over time. You’re always going to come face-to-face with other people’s annoying quirks and habits, but someone’s annoying laugh or need to have a certain kind of pen aren’t exactly hostile behavior.

A hostile work environment is a workplace where harassment, discrimination and/or abuse hamper an employee’s job performance or create an offensive or intimidating environment. These words or actions aren’t just single, misplaced instances. It’s when someone’s repeated bullying creates an environment of hostility over time, and prevents the individual—or the team—from feeling respected and safe.

Some examples of illegal workplace harassment include:

  • Making verbal or physical threats
  • Giving unwanted romantic or sexual attention
  • Sharing content or images that are inappropriate for a workplace setting
  • Calling people rude names
  • Repeating inappropriate jokes that discriminate against someone’s age, gender, religion, race, sexual orientation or nationality

In addition, a hostile work environment affects more than just the person being targeted. This behavior creates a toxic situation that causes discomfort and distraction for others who see or hear it. 

If you or a coworker experience workplace harassment, the first step to end the bullying is to ask them to stop the behavior that’s making you uncomfortable. If you feel intimidated by the person in question, go directly to your supervisor, or the company’s human resources department.

After you report hostile behavior or discrimination, it’s the employer’s responsibility to address the problem and make sure it’s resolved quickly.

If you dread going to work because your employer isn’t willing or able to stop harassment, organizations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can step in. But remember, reporting a claim to the EEOC is serious business—one where the burden of proof falls on the victim. You must prove the discrimination is unwelcome, severe and stands between you and success in your career. 

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