What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment?

Is your workplace toxic to employees?

Almost one out of every five Americans is exposed to a hostile work environment, according to a 2015 RAND study. A toxic workplace can cause morale issues and even cause other issues to escalate. For instance, a study by Hiscox found that over half of employees who were harassed in the workplace didn’t report it because they feared their hostile work environment.

So what qualifies as a hostile work environment? Learn the definition and signs in this quick guide.


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What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment, defined by Legal Dictionary, is established by “unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated in their place of employment.” The unwelcome contact can come from another employee, a contractor, a client, a customer or any other person the victim comes in contact with while performing work-related duties.

Gilbert Employment Law puts it another way, saying that “a hostile work environment is a workplace in which the conduct of supervisors or coworkers has created a discriminatory environment that a reasonable person would find so abusive or intimidating that it impacts the ability to work.”

To determine whether or not a work environment qualifies as hostile, ask:

  • Does the behavior discriminate against an EEOC-protected category (gender, race, age, religion, ability, nation of origin, sexual orientation)?
  • Would a reasonable person find the environment hostile?
  • Has the behavior been ongoing and/or pervasive?
  • Has the victim or victims lost their motivation or ability to complete their assigned work tasks as a result of the environment?
  • Have you, as an employer, failed to investigate reported issues? If nothing was reported but you knew about misconduct, did you fail to intervene?


If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” the work environment can legally be considered hostile.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, hostile work environment harassment must be both unwelcome and based on one of the EEOC protected categories listed above. In addition, it must be “subjectively abusive” to the victim and “severe and pervasive,” determined by:

  1. “the frequency of the unwelcome discriminatory conduct;
  2. the severity of the conduct;
  3. whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance;
  4. whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with work performance;
  5. the effect on the employee’s psychological well-being; and
  6. whether the harasser was a superior within the organization.”



According to the DOL, behaviors that could contribute to a hostile work environment include but aren’t limited to:

  • Talking about sexual activities
  • Telling mean-spirited jokes about protected categories
  • Non-consensual touching
  • Commenting on the victim’s physical appearance
  • Displaying images that are sexually suggestive or insensitive to a protected category
  • Using demeaning terms or names, including slang and slurs
  • Making offensive gestures
  • Using crude language
  • Sabotaging the victim’s work (e.g. destroying or altering files, undermining them)
  • Physically threatening or harming the victim (e.g. punching walls, yelling in their face, hitting them)


RELATED: The Complete Guide to a Hostile Work Environment in 2020


What Does Not Qualify as a Hostile Work Environment?

No matter what industry you work in or what organization you work for, unpleasant situations arise. For example, an employee might:

  • Eat strong-smelling foods at their desk every day
  • Have a curt, cold communication style
  • Laugh and chat too loudly
  • Skip the line for the coffee machine


While these are all irritating scenarios, they probably don’t make other employees feel fearful.

Similarly, office perks and benefits (or lack thereof) don’t usually contribute to a hostile work environment. For example, an employee might:

  • Find the office too cold or hot
  • Wish they had more paid time off
  • Think it’s unfair that they don’t receive dental insurance through work


These situations can be distracting and uncomfortable, but they are not usually a personal affront meant to abuse a specific employee.


RELATED: Investigating Workplace Bullying Allegations: 10 Tips for Success


If any of the signs of a hostile work environment are present in your organization (or look like they could develop) take action right away. No business relationship or amount of money is worth what you could lose in employee morale, legal fees and your company’s public reputation.