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Hostile work environments

Business Matters Columnist

Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 16:08

Ed Chang worked as a manager in operations for a Fortune 500 company for over 12 years. His specialty was process development and people management. He has interviewed, hired and conducted human resource and loss prevention investigations as part of his responsibilities.

The potential for you to witness, be a victim or unknowingly participate in workplace discrimination or to a hostile work environment is real. Protect yourself from falling into the unknown and becoming a victim. Protecting yourself involves making good decisions about what you say and what you get involved with in the workplace setting.

Workplace harassment and hostile work environments can be very subtle or they can be very obvious. This means that the potential for you to inadvertently be involved can increase if you are not careful of what you decide to discuss or do in the workplace. You should learn about the legal implications of the law and familiarize yourself with your company's internal policy regarding such situations.

Large corporations are likely to have clauses within their employee handbooks that speak about hostile work environments and discrimination in the workplace. It is a safe practice for companies to make these policies public to all employees. It is also a good policy to enforce these policies to keep a company safe from such unnecessary behavior and costly liability. Many companies will only go so far as to state their position on discrimination in the workplace. A company with a policy of respect in the workplace can potentially cover both. Smaller companies may not have established policies, but this doesn't preclude them from being obligated to protect their employees and abide by federal law. There may also be protection against retaliation from a company that you report.

Did you know that if you report an act of harassment or hostility, your employer must respond to you? Employers that continue to ignore complaints or fail to investigate complaints can face legal action. In some instances, an employer's repeated failure to address real workplace incidents can be viewed by the courts as actually condoning the behavior. Oftentimes, a lower manager can shield upper managers from becoming aware of these types of concerns. They might be just as scared as you are. Give them some help and request to speak to a human resources professional.

It is true that the courts look to established procedures, case precedent and the claims companies make with regard to their policies within their organizations. What happens when something falls outside the scope of a legal definition? Hostile work environments can fall out of the safe walls of legal definition. It is important to remember that the law works not mysteriously, but according to the words it comprises. Proving a hostile work environment might require evidence that such behaviors were 1) directed at you, 2) continued for a sufficient time so as to change the nature of your work and/or 3) were pervasive enough to cause a negative change to the working environment.

When legal professionals look at such cases, they also look to the aid of established law such as the (Amended) ADA Act of 1990 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Claims of hostile work environments are often augmented by discriminatory practices prohibited by federal statute. In short, people calling you names at work doesn't necessarily give cause of action to file a hostile work environment claim. Repeated instances of verbal abuse being sanctioned by a manager who does nothing to stop the abuse over time may constitute a hostile environment. You also have to look at who is contributing to this environment. Is it a supervisor? Is it your manager? Is it an unwritten practice that takes place with the knowledge of the president of the company but against the policies or the law? These are all important factors to consider and might give you cause to fight for your rights. Just be sure you weigh all of the facts. The law will do that, and you should too.

Discrimination and harassment in the workplace is a similar story. Harassment can materialize from comments, actions or failures in action based upon a protected status such as national origin, sex, color, age or race. The difference between hostile work environments and harassment or discrimination is the clearly- defined nature of harassment and discrimination that the hostile work environment lacks.

I mentioned earlier about becoming unknowingly involved in a situation that involves discrimination. I can tell you that jumping into inappropriate discriminatory conversations surrounding any protected statuses makes you a participant. Whether you were willing or unwilling may not matter. The law requires only that you participated. A jury will decide the rest. Your safest bet is to not involve yourself in such behavior and report such instances to your manager or human resources representative so that they can stop it before it gets out of hand. Did you find yourself on the wrong end of this discussion? Intentional harassment is illegal. Report it to a manager or to their manager.

Let's think logically here. Will you always be in a position where you have a great professional relationship with your workers and managers? The answer is, not always. Establishing a good channel of open communication can work to significantly reduce your chances of being in a situation in which you will have to choose between your job and reporting a violation. Peer pressure, interpersonal relationships, your social identity, collective identity, and self identity will all be in jeopardy. Life was never meant to be easy. You will have to decide and the decision will be your responsibility alone.

Almost all situations involving disparity and inequality can often be solved through good productive communication. You must keep an open mind and, most importantly, keep it professional. In most situations that arise from the workplace, communication and sensibility are typically lacking in the situation which causes the emergence of an issue. Learn how to communicate and ask questions if uncertainty.

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