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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

Hostile work environment: key signs and examples

11 min read
Hostile work environment: key signs and examples
There is nothing worse than working in a hostile work environment where harassment and other unwelcome conduct go unchecked. If workplace bullies know that they can get away with it, intimidation and discrimination will dominate the culture.

The worst type of people gravitate toward companies that only care about the bottom line (and don’t care how you get there). They feed their egos and relish the opportunity to harass and bully their way to “success.” Sure, their tactics may help them to achieve the desired results, but they will leave a trail of broken people in their wake. 

Hostile work environments continue because there is always a ready supply of fresh victims. People join the company not quite knowing what they are getting into and put up for it long enough to make the desired contribution. The revolving door spins and their replacement experiences the same thing. You might think that this is not sustainable, but there are entire industries that are based on hostile work practices.

It is therefore important to spot the signs of a hostile work environment. Ideally, before you join, but certainly after you have been in a job for a month or two. There is no shame in leaving a role as soon as you spot toxicity. There will be other jobs—your emotional stability is worth more than a paycheck at the end of the month. 

In this blog, we look at the signs and examples of a toxic work environment.

  • Legal definition of a hostile work environment
  • Signs of a hostile workplace
  • When do employers become liable?

If you can recognize a hostile work environment, that is a good start. Then you have the choice to do something about it (every little positive action can make a difference). Alternatively, you can leave. The worst thing that you can do is put up with it – that makes you part of the problem.

Everyone has a slightly different idea of what constitutes a hostile workplace when it comes to employee harassment. This depends on our personal values and cultural norms, but from a legal standpoint, there are clear definitions of harassment in every country.

If employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or harassed on a regular basis, it is likely that their employer is skirting these employment laws. This depends on where you are working as some countries are more permissive of aggressive management practices, but in the U.S. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses the following definition of harassment within a hostile workplace:

“Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history). Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

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.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.”

While there are always grey areas when it comes to workplace behaviors, this guidance will form the bedrock of any legal judgment. Company HR teams should strive to embed this in their DNA, so if you experience anything like this, there is an issue.

Signs of a hostile work environment 

When you are assessing whether you work in a hostile work environment, you should therefore consider what sort of conduct is unwelcome—both according to the EEOC and common sense. Then look at how frequently this behavior occurs. Some behaviors should never take place, while others are slightly less severe.

If a behavior is a serious violation, it does not have to be frequent to have an irreparably damaging effect on an individual and their colleagues. The thought that it could happen again is enough to create a toxic environment where employees are scared and intimidated rather than simply unhappy.

Sexual/racial harassment

You cannot have a healthy workplace if employees are being ridiculed or marginalized because of their sexual orientation or racial background. While direct insults may be rare, any sort of derogatory comment between two employees will influence the culture. Such toxic behavior has no place in a supportive workplace. 

If you hear this kind of verbal abuse, think about how often this may be taking place and the impact on those affected. Hopefully, you will speak out if you hear it in person.


Discrimination can take all sorts of forms and it is rarely obvious and easy to prove. If too many illogical decisions are being made that don’t quite make sense and seem to favor certain types of people, look a little deeper. 

If your own situation is comfortable, it is all too easy to shut your eyes to discrimination that affects others as you subconsciously do not wish to be tarred with the same brush. Bias and discrimination against protected characteristics (such as age or gender) are illegal in many countries. Again, if you see it, it is your responsibility to call it out.


Playing jokes on each other is acceptable up to a point between friends, but when there is one person who always seems to be the target, a line is crossed. There are all sorts of egos in the workplace and some people enjoy the power trip of ridiculing others. There is a certain sickening mob mentality when it comes to workplace bullying. Don’t join in.

WhatsApp and other messaging services fuel such behaviors and allow certain groups of colleagues to exclude others. It is one thing to not be part of the “in crowd” but another entirely to be the butt of their jokes. Corporate cyberbullying is a sackable offense.

Threatening behavior

It is a basic expectation to feel physically and emotionally safe at work. If you feel threatened in the workplace (by a manager or co-worker) it can destroy your self-confidence. Some people get what they need at work by threatening others. If such behavior is tolerated, then your work environment is undeniably hostile.

If there are disproportionate threats of disciplinary action made by a certain manager to employees, this also may be seen as threatening behavior. Creating a culture of fear in such a way is not good management and it is not healthy for the team. Some managers use a stick for motivation, but such threats are excessive.

Toxic atmosphere

There is no single definition of a toxic atmosphere as there are sadly so many variations on toxic behavior, but too many of us know the sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs when we walk through the office doors (or even open up a video call). When the culture is toxic you never know when the next behavioral hand grenade will be thrown next.

People sabotage each other and disrespect lingers behind every comment and action. People who have free rein to disparage others are being enabled by the lax policies of their employer— get out of there before it has a lasting impact on you.

1 in 10 workers experience their workplace culture as toxic
1 in 10 workers experience their workplace culture as toxic

When do employers become liable?

While we all love a good moan about our bosses with friends and colleagues, there is a clear line when it comes to making an official complaint. Accusing a manager of harassment when you do not have a solid amount of evidence will not end well, no matter how much you wish to make them see the error of their ways.

Again, according to the EEOC:

“The employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages. If the supervisor's harassment results in a hostile work environment, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”

If you or a colleague is experiencing harassment it is important to document it properly. Note the time and date of every incident, along with details of what happened. Keep this document at home rather than at work. When you have compiled a significant amount of evidence it is then time to have a chat with an employment law professional. While it is important to hold your employer to account, you should protect your rights.

Key takeaways

The signs of a hostile work environment are not hard to spot. As long as you choose to keep your eyes open. Whether the toxicity comes from deeper cultural issues or individuals, it is often deeply ingrained. When one person permits it, others quickly follow.

  • You should not have to tolerate any kind of harassment or discrimination.
  • Hostile work environments flourish when results come first.
  • How do you support colleagues who are experiencing such things?
  • Consider whether the employer is liable – do you have the law on your side?
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