Hostile Environment Harassment: What Is It And How To Handle It?

Hostile environment harassment occurs when an employee encounters discrimination or inappropriate behavior in the form of unwelcome advances, sexual innuendos, or offensive language. Employees subject to harassment might find it hard to delegate their professional duties.

What Makes a Workplace Hostile?

A discriminatory comment made in your direction once or twice does not necessarily be called a hostile work environment. It is often threatening, offensive, humiliating, or intimidating enough to force a person to quit a job. For a behavior to be classified as hostile in a work environment, it must be:

  • Persistent, pervasive, and severe
  • Disruptive to the employee’s work
  • Known to the employer, yet not addressed

Harassment in a workplace constitutes comments or actions that discriminate against a protected group of people, including conduct based on race, color, religion, gender, nationality, age, disability, or genetic information. When the conduct is severe enough to create an abusive situation, it is considered a hostile work environment. Usually, illegal conduct includes the following:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Insults, name-calling, and slurs
  • Physical assault, inappropriate touching, and threats
  • Intimidation, ridicule, and mockery
  • Use of sexual language
  • Sexually suggestive objects or pictures
  • Interference with the victim’s work performance

Not only is this behavior detrimental to productivity, but it can also impact the mental, emotional, and physical health of employees negatively. 

Questions for Conducting a Hostile Work Environment Investigation

To back their claim, the complainant does not have to prove that a supervisor threatened to fire them, gave negative performance reviews, or withheld desirable work assignments. While defending themselves against this claim, an employer must show that they took proper care to prevent and correct any harassment. 

Stopping hostile environment harassment is a vital part of human resource management. Here is a list of questions you can ask the complainant during an investigation.  

  • What specifically do you believe is hostile in the work environment?
  • How has the behavior negatively affected you and your work?
  • Are any other workers bothered by this conduct?
  • How often does it occur?
  • Who engaged in the behavior? Was it more than one person?
  • Do you have any notes, physical evidence, security tapes, or other documentation?
  • What action do you want to see the company take?
  • Have you reported this incident before?
  • What leads you to think the behavior happened because you are part of a protected group (based on race, religion, gender, age, etc.)?

If it is about discriminatory comments, ask the complainant:

  • In what context was each statement made?
  • What was your reaction to the said comments?
  • Did anyone else hear the comments?
  • Has the person said this type of thing to others besides you?
  • Is there anyone else who may have relevant information?
  • Did the statements refer to a protected group (based on race, religion, gender, age, etc.)?
  • Ask follow-up questions if necessary and look for inconsistencies.

Types of Harassment in the Workplace that Make it Hostile

Employers engaging in or encouraging hostile environment harassment are often liable to legal action from employees since such behavior almost always disregards federal and state employment laws. Here are three types of workplace harassment of which you should be careful. 

Verbal or Written

The verbal or written form of workplace harassment is the easiest to notice as you might come across it often. Here are a few instances that constitute verbal harassment. 

  • Circulating emails containing offensive jokes or graphics about race or religion
  • Repeatedly asking for dates or sexual favors in person or through text
  • Inquiring about family history of illnesses or genetic disorders
  • Making demeaning comments about someone’s disability or age
  • Mimicking someone’s foreign accent behind their back


The physical form of harassment can be difficult to spot as it is mostly subtle. The instances listed below depict physical harassment in the workplace. 

  • Obscene hand gestures or other gestures meant to convey curse words
  • Inappropriate touching of a person or their clothing
  • Repeatedly following or standing too close to a person on purpose
  • Making sexually suggestive facial expressions
  • Playing music that has offensive or degrading language


This type of harassment is the toughest to spot as it is subjective. Here are a few examples of visual harassment in the work environment. 

  • Wearing clothing that has offensive or vulgar language
  • Showing posters or pictures of a sexual nature
  • Displaying other people sexually suggestive text messages or emails
  • Watching or encouraging pornographic or violent videos
  • Drawing violent or derogatory images

How Can You Educate Employees about Types of Workplace Harassment?

Here are a few actions you can take to help them handle harassment. 

  • Define Unacceptable Behavior in Official Policies

Your employee might be having different viewpoints as to what a hostile work environment constitutes. The first step you should take is to clearly define unacceptable behavior in your code of conduct or employee handbook. 

  • Have the Top-level Executives Set a Good Example

You need to ensure that your top-level executives and managers are setting a good example for your employees to look up to. If a manager curses around or makes derogatory comments, the employees take it as a sign to indulge in similar behavior. 

  • Implement Workplace Harassment Training Exercises

Your employees can learn their role in preventing different types of workplace harassment by taking harassment prevention training. This training also reinforces the guidelines you have set as acceptable behavior. 

  • Outline Reporting Procedures and Investigative Claims

You must encourage employees to come forward if they feel the need to talk. In case they experience workplace harassment, you must take preventative action for the same. 

Efficient Ways to Prevent Workplace Harassment

Often victims feel they cannot report incidents for fear of retaliation. In some cases, business executives say they have zero tolerance for harassment but exceptions for “high value” talent. Here are a few ways to prevent workplace harassment and create a healthy environment, enabling greater productivity.

  • Build a Healthy Workplace Culture

The goal of your organization should be to build a healthy workplace by embracing respect, communication, and diversity. Managing unconscious bias and effectively resolving conflict deters bad behavior, hence preventing harassment of any form

  • Use Authenticity When Harassment Accusations Go Public 

In case harassment incidents from your workplace go viral on social media, do not make unrealistic statements like “We take harassment allegations very seriously”. Instead, work on the reported incident and investigate further to uncover facts. 

  • Provide Support for Employees

Make sure your Human Resources Department is available to answer any doubts your employees might have regarding training or harassment incidents. Update the policy statement annually, and provide training every year. Also, ensure the policy is uniform with employment laws and applicable legislative changes. 

  • Develop In-depth Training

Make sure you include a training session that is appropriate for all levels of employees, from hourly to salary and from frontline workers to executive leadership. Announce mandatory attendance for these sessions and inform employees that absence would lead to strict action against them. 

It is impossible to watch over your employees at all times. Hence, you will have to trust them to adhere to the office policies relating to harassment. In the modern business arena, Preventing workplace harassment is a key element in HR responsibilities. If you fail to provide protection and safeguard the welfare of each employee, it may lead to unwanted consequences in the workplace. 

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