A Leading Perspective

Pragmatic insights for the leader in you


Hostile Work Environment

I got a call today from a potential client; here’s an excerpt:

An employee has filed a formal complaint that the supervisor was treating her and everyone else poorly.  She said the supervisor was creating a “hostile work environment.”  

The employee told us (HR) that we must “do something about it” or else!


Welcome to the always fun and never boring life in Human Resources!


Let’s explore the employee’s words, “hostile work environment.”


This employee may be versed in Title VII or she may watch a lot of Law & Order; regardless, she has used a “term of art.”


A “term of art” is a word or phrase that has a particular meaning. In this case, these three words mean something specific in employment legislation and hence, place a burden on the employer to “do something.”


In general, Title VII and other non-discrimination laws say harassment or a “hostile work environment” is created when severe and pervasive speech or conduct creates a hostile or abusive work environment.  For these purposes, the behavior would be based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status, or other protected status.


A “hostile work environment” may also be considered “sexual harassment” when an employee is subject to a pattern of unwanted sexual behavior from supervisors, coworkers, vendors, or anyone else in the workplace.


When an employee makes a claim of “hostile work environment,” the employer should investigate the matter.


It doesn’t have to be a formal investigation but trust me, you will need to pass the red face test later and tell some decision maker passing judgment on your organization that you investigated the matter. 

And if you do need the formal thing, call me…I love my job and am darn good at it!


Regardless of what level of investigation you conduct, the objective in the scenario noted above would be to determine the following:

Does the alleged behavior rise to the definition of hostile work environment as noted in legislation, regulations, internal policy, etc.?

If so, what is the remedy?


Remedies will vary based on what you conclude from your investigation.  It could be discipline, training, coaching, separation of the staff, heightened involvement with management, etc.  Regardless of what is appropriate based on the totality of circumstances, trust me when I say,


“to minimize your Employer’s risk, you must identify and implement a remedy!”


What if your investigation reveals that the workplace is “hostile” (used as an adjective) but that’s about it?


Perhaps the supervisor is an ass.

Maybe employees don’t get recognized for their hard work.

Maybe staff meetings feel like episodes of Dance Moms.



These issues, while problematic, are not necessarily a “hostile work environment.”


However, you still have work to do!


Not because the law says you must but because it’s the right thing to do.


Why?  If your investigation reveals the workplace is unhealthy, tense, or otherwise “hostile” (again, just using it as an adjective), I’m willing to bet my chicken enchilada recipe that morale is low, productivity is decreasing, safety is being ignored, customer service is in the toilet, etc.


In other words, your organization is at risk in other ways.


If you’re a good HR professional, you’ll manage that risk! 

A few ideas are listed below:

  • Coach and mentor the supervisor re: employee engagement
  • Facilitate a discussion among staff to get to the root of things
  • Facilitate the identification of performance standards with the group to encourage supervisor/peer/team accountability
  • Identify training needs
  • Ensure supervisor and staff have access to the tools they need to improve their behavior/performance
  • Educate supervisor and staff on the expectations of the organization


Believe me, this is hard work.  I’ve been there and I know how these issues can suck the life right out of you!


However, the rewards are great when you step up to the plate…whether it’s for my enchiladas or to prove your worth as an HR professional.


Now get to work!


Employee RelationsFairnessGood FaithHostile Work EnvironmentImmunity from Good FaithRetentionSexual HarassmentWorkforce Satisfaction

Heather Kinzie • April 6, 2012

Previous Post

Next Post


  1. Roberta Goughnour April 7, 2012 - 1:07 pm Reply

    It is great to see an HR professional taking on the topic of bullying. Yes, bullying. While we as a society have acknowledged bullying as a problem in our schools, we are still struggling with it in the workplace. The reason for this is, unlike harassment or hostile work environment based on race, gender or culture, bullying is not “illegal”.

    A bully is by definition someone who does not discriminate based on legal, protected class status. He or she looks for certain personality types that will tolerate the bullying behavior without challenge. When a bully bumps up against a strong personality that does challenge this behavior, the bully will find a way to get rid of him or her.

    Fortunately, the HR profession is stepping up and making bullying in the workplace an issue. The following are results reported by SHRM on a poll of HR professionals on bullying:

    “Of the respondents who said they’d been bullied on the job as an HR professional, 32 percent said they’d been bullied by an executive. Twenty-nine percent were bullied by someone outside the HR department, and 24 percent were bullied by a manager. Seventeen percent said the bully was their manager.

    More than one-half (57 percent) of the bullied HR professionals reported the incident to someone in their organization, most often their supervisor (38 percent), an executive (28 percent) or a manager (22 percent).”

    Unfortunately, the poll did not say if any action was taken by management when bullying was reported.
    Yes, the person may be an Ass. I recommend the book “No Asshole Rule.” It is an easy read and illustrates how frustrating this behavior is for employees, the money it can cost an organization, and the stress it puts on employees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *

WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.