5 Key Indicators of a Hostile Working Environment

What constitutes a hostile working environment? You can call it a hostile working environment, a toxic workplace culture, or an uncomfortable environment. Whatever terminology you use, the real issue is that the workplace is defined more by conflict than employee engagement. The conflict may be between staff and management, between different functions, between coworkers, or, as is usually the case, a mix of conflicts in various working relationships. Developing leaders who can apply conflict resolution principles to move the working environment from hostile to engaging is crucial to positive change. Still, first, you have to recognize what constitutes a hostile working environment. Five key indicators signal a problem, usually involving ineffective leadership communication, low employee engagement, and a negative organizational culture.  

Is a Hostile Working Environment the Same as an Uncomfortable Work Environment? 

Before delving into the five key indicators of what constitutes a hostile working environment, it’s good to know the difference between an uncomfortable work environment and one defined by hostile behavior. We define a hostile work environment as one where the actions and words of organizational members negatively impact the ability to perform job duties to the best of one’s abilities. The organization’s leadership directly impacts the development of a hostile working environment.  

What constitutes a hostile work environment, according to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC)? Based on several discrimination and civil rights laws, the EEOC says that for a hostile work environment to exist by law, there must be severe or pervasive discrimination and harassment against people in a protected class based on gender, age, religion, disability, race, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or national origin. An average person would perceive the behavior as abusive or hostile, or enduring the hostile behavior becomes a condition of remaining employed; the hostile behavior is exhibited long-term, and the misconduct has led to adverse effects.  

conflict resolution hostile work environment

Another important distinction is the employer was informed of the hostile behavior but did not try to stop it. This is a key fact that all employers should know. If one or more employees repeatedly report harassment, bullying, discrimination, or bias to Human Resources or other designated persons, and nothing is done, you will be held liable. 

Employee Claims Hostile Environment, Court Rules Otherwise

There is a difference between an uncomfortable work environment and a hostile work environment. In the case of McElroy v. American Family Insurance (No. 14-4134 (10th Cir. Oct. 30, 2015) in the U.S. Court of Appeals, an employee claimed a hostile work environment existed because a supervisor frequently complimented the employee’s clothes and appearance, touched the employee’s back and buttocks to demonstrate where his back pain was experienced, and repeatedly asked him to join him for drinks during a company event. The employee was eventually fired for not meeting sales goals and engaging in insubordinate behavior. McElroy filed an EEOC complaint and then a lawsuit in federal court, claiming a hostile work environment. 

The federal judge ruled that some people would feel uncomfortable with the supervisor’s behaviors, but it did not rise to a level of being so offensive it created a hostile work environment. McElroy appealed the case, saying that if the conduct makes people feel uncomfortable, a jury may find it offensive enough to support the claim of a hostile work environment. The appeals court disagreed. Behavior causing “mere discomfort” does not alter the conditions of employment enough to create a hostile work environment.  

Though McElroy lost his appeal, there are two important takeaways from the EEOC and court case.  

  1. When any employee reports uncomfortable or hostile behavior to management, it needs a management response.  
  2. An uncomfortable work environment can rise to a hostile work environment if not properly addressed and allowed to escalate.  

The EEOC considers all the surrounding circumstances of the complaint and not just the incident itself. This is why it’s so important to respond to employee incident reports. The EEOC says that “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” 

With these takeaways in mind, what constitutes a hostile working environment? What are the five key indicators that tell you a hostile work environment is developing or already exists? 


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What Constitutes a Hostile Working Environment? 

Hostile behavior is all about conflict and demeaning someone else. The purpose may be based on conscious or unconscious bias, resentment, jealousy, retaliation, or a desire to hold someone back from succeeding at work. In the workplace, leaders or employees may be the harassers or discriminators, but it’s up to leadership to communicate that not even an uncomfortable working environment is tolerated and certainly not a hostile one. Your leaders are role models for appropriate workplace behaviors and the people who need the ability to recognize the indicators of a hostile workplace to develop the appropriate response and maintain a positive culture 

Following are five common indicators of a hostile environment.  

hostile work environment

Frequent conflict among employees

Some employee conflict is normal. In some situations, the managers and supervisors argue between themselves or find themselves losing their temper with employees. If your leaders frequently act as a referee because employees are often getting into arguments, it’s a sign of a hostile workplace. 

The conflict indicates employees are feeling underappreciated, believe they don’t have a voice in the organization, don’t believe they have other avenues of communication, feel mistrusting of coworkers or managers, or feel threatened for some reason, like experiencing job insecurity. There may be unmet workplace needs organizational changes causing employees to compete with each other out of fear their jobs are at risk or misunderstood remarks due to different perceptions or lack of cultural sensitivity.   

Increasing claims of harassment

Every workforce has one or a few employees who are unlikable or good at bothering others. But when employees regularly file complaints of harassment with Human Resources or use the organization’s grievance procedure, a hostile working environment exists.  

For example, employees who file a harassment claim against a supervisor will show evidence the supervisor’s hostile behavior makes it impossible to maintain work performance. Employees may claim management is harassing employees by making unreasonable work demands that threaten employee safety for no justifiable reason or is frequently threatening punishment for failure. There may be offensive posters in the workplace that make people feel uncomfortable. Remember, the harassment must create an offensive workplace environment.  

Increasing claims of discrimination

Per the EEOC, harassment becomes discrimination and illegal when the hostile behavior is based on someone’s characteristics or beliefs, like gender, religion, or race. Discrimination can take many forms. It can be blatant favoritism towards certain employees, which means other groups are excluded from opportunities. The people who benefit from favoritism are allowed to play by different rules, creating deep resentments among those not favored and harming workplace morale. For example, certain employees are allowed to violate company policies, get good performance reviews despite poor performance, or are promoted over those more qualified. In these situations, groups of employees are pitted against each other, leading to hostility.  

Low employee engagement

Low employee engagement can be an important indicator of a hostile work environment. In February 2021, a study on how the toxic workplace environment affects employee engagement and the positive impact of organizational support and employee wellbeing was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The authors wrote: 

The conclusions of this study are as follows: First, the direct relationship between a toxic workplace environment and employee engagement confirms that if employees are working in a toxic environment, they will spread negative feelings among other coworkers. The feelings that come with a toxic workplace environment, i.e., harassment, bullying, and ostracism, can be detrimental and lead to unnecessary stress, burnout, depression, and anxiety. Second, employee wellbeing will affect employee behaviors that enhance employee engagement with the work and the organization. Third, organizational support also increases employee engagement with the work as well as with the organization. So, it is also confirmed that when workers perceive support from the organization, their sense of belonging to the organization is strengthened. 

When considering what constitutes a hostile workplace environment, one of the key indicators is metrics indicating employee engagement is worsening.  

High employee turnover or absenteeism

If your organization experiences excessive turnover or absenteeism, it may be due to a hostile working environment. Organizational culture and leadership skills are important to employee satisfaction. When employees experience mental stress, believe management doesn’t care about their wellbeing, or feel burnout because of excessive work demands, they will look for other jobs or call in sick more frequently.  

Employees are more likely to quit if they dread coming to work, experience ongoing harassment or discrimination, or believe they can’t communicate honestly with management. SHRM funded research on toxic workplace cultures that found 58 percent of employees leave their jobs due to the workplace culture and say the managers are the main reason for leaving.  

Understanding What Creates a Hostile Working Environment 

To answer the question as to what constitutes a hostile working environment requires understanding the relationship of organizational culture and leadership. Your leaders may exhibit hostile behavior towards employees or allow toxic behaviors in the workplace among employees. Either way, it is not ethical leadership.  

It is up to your managers and supervisors to learn conflict resolution, transparent leadership communication skills, the ability to recognize and address hostile behavior in themselves or others, employee engagement skills, and positive organizational culture-building skills. The sooner an uncomfortable working environment is addressed, the less likely a hostile working environment will develop, and strong positive workplace culture can thrive.  

About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.