Hostile Work Environment
What is it and How can you stop it!


Hostile work environment is any situation that makes a person feel consistently uncomfortable at their place of employment.

However, in order for an employee to utilize the legal system, there must be proof of inappropriate conduct.



Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other applicable Federal laws, inappropriate conduct that creates a hostile working environment includes situations in which a person is harassed or discriminated against due to their race, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability.


Furthermore, hostile environment must be pervasive and severe enough that it deviates from the terms and conditions of a person’s employment.

It must create an environment that is abusive and not conducive for an employee to operate in, thereby affecting the quality of their work.

The test is that a reasonable person would find the environment to be hostile or abusive.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) agency is responsible for investigating claims of this nature.

One important distinction to bear in mind is that the law is not meant to protect against simple teasing, brusque comments or isolated situations that are not serious.

In other words, if a boss is yelling at everyone (in an offensive manner) it may create a hostile space.

But this does not become problematic in the eyes of the law unless a particular person is singled out on one of the previously mentioned grounds.


Hostile Work Environment...where nothing grows

Definition: What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Many employees believe that a lousy boss, a rude co-worker, an unpleasant work environment or the lack of privileges, perks, and benefits constitute as a hostile work environment.

However, in order for a workplace to be hostile, specific legal criteria must be met.

The definition of a hostile work environment is created when an employee feels uncomfortable or fearful to his or her work-space due to actions by an employer or coworker whose actions or behavior make doing their job impossible.

This includes; offensive behavior, intimidation or verbal or physical abuse.

The actions, communication, and behavior must be discriminatory in nature.

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Workplace Bullying ≠ Hostile Work Environment

Workplace bullying does not constitute a hostile work environment.

Unfortunately for anyone being targeted by a workplace bully, the law in most parts of the U.S. says that behavior is perfectly legal.

As discussed above, the term "hostile work environment" only applies if the behavior is harassment or discrimination. And, according to the EEOC, the federal agency that regulates employers on this issue, harassment or discrimination is only happening if it's "based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information."

But here's a few glimmers of hope.

First, your city may have it's own laws prohibiting workplace bullying, so do a little research on that.

Second, it is quite possible that bullying could be considered workplace violence.

According to OSHA, the federal agency that regulates employers on this issue, defines violence as ranging "from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide."

Not that knowing you are a target of violence at work is a sparkling glimmer of good news, but it may help you make your case to HR and get their attention if you use that term.

If you'd like to know more about workplace bullying, why it's happening to you, why HR won't pay attention, and what you can do to prepare for your conversation with HR, check out the book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work.

Back Off - End Workplace Bullying by Catherine Mattice

Also check out Civility Partners' website - the founder, Catherine Mattice Zundel, has created a ton of programs to help employers put a stop to this behavior. She is an HR consultant.

This book contains a wealth of practical advice backed by extensive research and examples. It's an empowering resource for people who are or have been subjected to workplace bullying as well as their co-workers, bosses, family, and friends.

I found the real-life stories, self-assessments, and worksheets to be particularly helpful tools for understanding workplace bullying and what we can all do to prevent it.

~ Jeff T. (Amazon Verified Purchase)

Nursing in a Hostile Work Environment

Surprisingly for those outside of the healthcare industry, nurses often deal with hostile work environments. This is often characterized as nurse bullying upon initial observations.

Stressed patients and nurses often result in this toxic work environment.

Hostile work environments within nursing has resulted in many nurses giving up the profession.

Nurse bullying expert, Dr. Renee Thompson discusses what you can do if you are a nurse suffering from nurse bullying in a special article written for Forensic Notes.


 Hostile Work Environment...where nothing grows


How to Document & Prove a Hostile Working Environment

A person who alleges a hostile working environment must prove a hostile work environment exists by providing evidence and detailed examples that are fact based.

When writing notes on work environment, it is important to remember that the burden of proving this allegation is on the person being bullied or harassed which can often cause an emotional burden upon that individual.

The validity or otherwise of his or her claim is determined on an individual case basis, and the courts consider the frequency and severity of the alleged actions that created the hostile working environment,  whether it was physically threatening and if it interfered with the person’s ability to perform their assigned duties.

To prove that the treatment has been severe and pervasive, the employee has to show they were specifically targeted.

This means proving that the offender was hostile toward a specific employee. Courts generally will make a determination by assessing if the offender was objectively hostile toward a reasonable person of the same gender.

They generally review the objective condition from the perspective of a reasonable person who knew what the employee knew at that time.


1. Use Your Company’s Internal Complaint System

If you feel you are working in a hostile work environment, make an official internal complaint first.

While you may worry about getting into trouble or being retaliated against by your company, you should bear in mind that you have legal protection in such a situation.

Federal law and some state laws protect those who file such accusations, and it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate or take punitive actions against an individual who complains about discrimination and harassment.

Even if your claim is found to have no merit or validity, the law still protects you as an employee.

How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment

How to Prove a Hostile Work Environment

1. Use Your Company's Internal Complaint System
2. Obtain Evidence of Company Awareness
3. Take Note of Witnesses
4. Research the Laws Applicable to Your Situation
5. Seek Legal Advice 



2. Obtain Evidence of Company Awareness

Be able to prove that management was aware of the harassment, or that they should have been aware by documenting dates, times, places and other details of any meetings or discussions at which you reported the situation to the appropriate people in your company.

This is a crucial part of proving your case which is why it is a good idea to alert your manager or supervisor immediately that you feel that you are working in a hostile work environment.

Even if it is an informal meeting where you voice your concerns, you should definitely tell someone in a supervisory role above you. Regardless of their reaction, it is in your best interest to also make an appointment with the Human Resources department.

Document all of these meetings, as it can help prove that the harassment was pervasive, and that management was complicit in the conduct by doing nothing about it.

3. Take Note of Witnesses

If you experience harassment be aware of any witnesses that might have seen what took place.

Your case becomes much stronger when it is supported by a third party.

Document their names, contact details and exactly what they observed, so that you can let your lawyer know about this person later on, down the line.

If possible, have them provide a written statement either physically or via email.

Include the email or scanned statement within your Forensic Notes account to ensure it is properly archived and timestamped.

Your lawyer may then contact them to determine if they have a credible account of the events that took place, and if they are willing to testify.

4. Research the Laws Applicable to Your Situation

Conduct some of your own research about the law to initially determine if your employer is covered.

Federal anti-discrimination laws do not apply to all companies that employ people.

An employer must have at least 15 employees If the complaint revolves around age discrimination, then they must have at least 20.

If the Federal law cannot help you, research your local state or provincial laws on discrimination.

5. Seek Legal Advice

Search for a lawyer who specializes in discrimination, wrongful termination or even employment law.

Try not to procrastinate with making that call, and do not worry about having money upfront for the legal fees.

Typically, you can obtain a free and private consultation to go over your claim with many reputable lawyers.

If the lawyer feels you have a strong case of harassment that escalated to a hostile work environment, many will work on a contingency fee agreement.

Hostile Work Environment...where nothing grows

Can I Sue for a Hostile Work Environment?

Employees can sue for hostile work environment, discrimination or harassment.

If an employer is made aware that a hostile work environment has been created and doesn’t take the initiative to fix the problem, then the employer can be held liable for the discrimination and harassment.

However, if the employer is not engaging in the alleged activity or isn’t made aware of the situation, the employer will most likely not be held responsible for this form of harassment.

This is especially true if the employer has a program or process in place that allows employees to submit grievances and the employee doesn’t take advantage of the program or process.

To be successful in their claim of a hostile environment, employees should keep detailed records of any instances of harassment to serve as proof.




6. Keep proof of negative impact on your health or job performance

Save any performance reviews that you have received from your job.

This is a great way to prove that the offensive conduct has affected your performance at work. Keep any medical records that show you started seeking medical or mental health help around the time that you are claiming the harassment occurred.

Gathering evidence is so important when it comes to establishing a credible timeline and a coherent case.

You can start your claim by going directly to the EEOC or equivalent state administrative agency, but that does not preclude you from seeking legal advice first.

7. Document Everything

Document as much as you can, once you feel that your workplace has become hostile.

Preserve all communication that will make for a detailed account of what happened.

This includes recording dates and times, storing emails, notes, letters and voicemails and other evidence that can strengthen your case.

Petty occurrences or a onetime example of unwelcome conduct will likely not qualify in court, but it is good practice to document, even if it is the first time it occurs.

This is how you form a credible pattern. You never know what will be the only instance versus a recurring patter of instances.

And when you document, make sure your documents can stand up to scrutiny later in court or before any arbitration forum your case ends up in.


Court-Ready Documentation is Vital

This is really important, as your case stands or fall on the basis of the evidence you provide.

For this reason, it is critical to ensure that the authenticity and validity of your documents can be proven, so that you’re not accused of having fabricated the date or note after your case went to court.

Forensic Notes’ document storage and verification system takes care of such concerns by protecting the integrity of all your documents.

With all your documents timestamped and protected from tampering by Forensic Notes, you have a better chance of being able to submit them as credible and authentic evidence before the EEOC or in court.


A hostile working environment is not something anyone should have to put up with, as this can have lasting mental and physical health impact and also affect your career negatively.

If you feel you’re in a hostile working environment, find out what your options are and take the right steps to free yourself from that situation.

Document Workplace Bullying and Harassment with Forensic Notes Software



Hostile Work Environment Bullying

Hostile Work Environment Bullying can be separate and unique from the normal day to day hostile environments that people often work within.

The bullying by an individual (or group) towards another individual (or group of employees) can grow within these hostile environments due to the ‘anything goes’ business atmosphere that is often allowed to exist because of management and their lack of effort to ensure a safe and professional work environment.

Hostile Work Environment Bullying can be directed towards an employee or group with the intention to degrade, humiliate, intimidate, or undermine that employee

Read our article about Bullying in the Workplace to better understand Bullying within Hostile Work Environments.