Hostile Environment

spike bulletUpdate from Supreme Court Rulings - June, 1998:

The US Supreme Court set down a clearer set of guidelines about sexual harassment, bringing federal laws closer to California laws.

The New Rules (as reported in the Orange County Register, June 27, 1998):

spike bulletHostile Workplace/Hostile Work Environment - What is it?

spike bulletDefinitions:

Hostile Work Environment refers to harassment by supervisors, managers, coworkers, agents of the company/organization and outside vendors. Hostile Work Environment consists of a condition where employee cannot do their job without feeling harassed or threatened. (1)

According to most legal definitions, Hostile Work Environment refers to harassment or discrimination that is a violation of a person's civil rights - based on gender, sexual orientation, race, color, nationality, ancestry, ethnic origin, religion, physical handicap/disability, medical condition, physical appearance, marital status, veteran status, education.

Webster's definition of Hostile (2):

  1. of or relating to an enemy
  2. marked especially by overt antagonism: UNFRIENDLY
  3. not hospitable.

Webster's definition of Hostility:

  1. a hostile state, hostile action or overt acts of warfare
  2. Conflict, opposition, or resistance in thought or principle.

Recent news reports quote research that people who witness harassment have stress symptoms almost as severe as those who are the target of harassment.

Consensual Behavior consists of voluntary, mutually welcome relationships between coworkers at any level. Consensual behavior is not regulated by laws nor do laws try to interfere in the personal private lives of coworkers. However, be aware, other employees may feel discriminated against, harassed or work in a hostile environment if denied equal opportunity due to a consensual relationship of coworkers. (1)

spike bulletOur Definition of Hostile Workplace Environments

A Hostile Workplace is one where people can not do their best work or be their most productive due to conditions in their workplace. That is, the workplace is hostile to their natural humanity. Notice also the results of a hostile workplace are hostility toward the company's productivity, which directly impact profits in a negative way. People who are unhappy, unhealthy or angry do not work hard.

Hostile workplace is the result of suppression of people's natural ability to express themselves. It is the opposite of a workplace that promotes creativity and vitality. Hostile workplaces are deadly to productivity. They are unhealthy - and potentially deadly - to the people who work in them.

Hostility consists of:

According to Dr. Suzette Elgin, hostility can make you sick or kill you! Dr. Elgin also says (3):

Hostile language can kill you as surely as hostile driving can . . . Hostile language hurts and frustrates and confuses people . . . the damage takes place slowly, over time, and the wouldn't aren't readily visible. . . .

Exposure to chronic verbal abuse doesn't leave you with obvious cuts and bruises, but is a guaranteed recipe for ulcers, migraine headaches, high blood pressure, allergy attacks; accidents in the home and in the workplace and on the highway, colds, rashes, rashes, depression and every sort of misery.

Angry, cynical people are five times as likely to die under 50 as people who are calm and trusting (New York Times, January 17, 1989)

Scientists have long noted an association between social relationships and health. More socially isolated or less socially integrated people are less healthy, psychologically and physically, and more likely to die. Science, June 19, 1988)

These effects don't show up on the short term, which is why it took so long to find out what was really happening. In the short term, it often looks as if the meanest, angriest, least-liked people are the ones getting the benefits. It took today's computers, which can find the patterns in the data from hundreds of thousands of health histories extending over lifetimes, to show us what the real facts are. They're not the facts you see on television.

People who are too angry to listen cannot be educated.

Research has shown that attentive listening is actually good for your health. When you are really listening, your blood pressure goes down, your heartbeat moderates and your body shows the healthful changes associated with relaxation.

When your language behavior makes other people enjoy being around you and look forward to talking with you, when you clean up your language environment so that verbal violence isn't a routine part of your life, you do more for your health and well-being than you could ever accomplish in any other way.

If for no other reason, and no matter what your gender, that's why you should bother.


(1) Zero Tolerance: Sexual Harassment Prevention, a training program, by Barbara Taylor, Michael Anthony, Victor Thies 1993

(2) Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary 1983

(3) Genderspeak: Men, Woman and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. 1993

spike bulletSexual Harassment Tips for Compliance:

  1. Limit Profanity
  2. Train, Train, Train
  3. No Racy or Pornographic Literature at Work
  4. Clean up the Humor
  5. Limit or Eliminate Touching
  6. Bond Other Than Through Sexual Innuendo, etc.
  7. Do Not Ignore the Issue of Workplace Romance
  8. Lead by Example
  9. Have a Strongly Enforced Sexual Harassment Policy

spike bulletLimit Profanity

Profanity is used as either a lazy person's tool for profound expression or as a shock device. If your workplace is riddled with swearing, start a collection box where each person who swears or is otherwise profane voluntarily puts in a dollar towards some charitable cause. When the contribution dwindles because there is less swearing, use the contribution box to work on some other behavior, like being grumpy. Aristotle said that to BE virtuous one need only practice virtue. PRACTICE!

spike bulletTrain, Train, Train

People need to learn that there are many things they should NEVER do or say at work - things that would be acceptable in their private life. At a cocktail party or wedding, you can walk away from an obnoxious guest. You can not do that at work when the obnoxious person is your boss, coworker or the whole company.

Training teaches people to allow everyone on the team to enjoy the right to a neutral environment. In turn the company is more profitable and everyone is the better for it.

spike bulletNo Racy or Pornographic Literature

This should go without saying. However, all too often, employees bring or keep such materials at work or call it up on the Internet. The workplace is no place for this material. PERIOD!

spike bulletClean up the Humor

Dirty jokes are the cheapest laugh. Any comedian will tell you that. If you really want to be funny, do it without sex or profanity. Compare Jerry Seinfeld to Andrew Dice Clay and ask yourself which type of workplace (Seinfeld or Clay) would your people be more comfortable in.

Just because it is not disgusting or sexist doesn't mean that it can't be funny.

spike bulletLimit or Eliminate Touching

This is a very difficult but important issue. In a recent seminar which I gave on sexual harassment, this issue became very focused on whether people could 'hug' at work. The discussion turned to what people wanted to communicate by hugging support, congratulations, empathy, attraction, warmth etc.

In work, it is this writer's opinion that the shorthand of the 'hug' or 'touch' should be avoided.

If you have something to say, say it with words. The message, most probably, will be clearer.

Many people do not want to be touched or hugged. It is not their job to tell you that. In many ways, this issue is about power.

spike bulletBond Other Than Through Sexual Innuendo, etc.

People seek to become a part of groups within groups. This helps us feel special. We create little clubs to get close to one another beyond a simple one-to-one relationship. One way this is done is by being part of a group that teases each other about sex and sexual issues. This is also used as an icebreaker. A really bad icebreaker.

Think back twenty years to this oldie but not so goody, 'Hey, you're cool, I really want to get high with you.' Same difference, and just as bad.

Bonding can occur on the job or through group reading, group mountain climbing, leadership seminars, or intramural bowling or football or golf leagues instead of through sexual innuendo and teasing.

Doing this right builds team character and dignity. Doing this wrong builds lawsuits.

spike bulletDo Not Ignore the Issue of Workplace Romance

Romance sometimes happens at work. It can create a hostile environment for coworkers not involved in the relationship, and also between the romantically-involved employees in the event that the romance ends (especially if it ends poorly).

Romances between managers and their direct reports can - in some jurisdictions - create legal exposure for the employer. The issue of workplace romances should be addressed and discussed, not ignored.

Create policies and stick by them (i.e., a manager is not allowed to be romantically involved with anyone that he or she supervises).

spike bulletLead by Example

"The fish rots from the head" (1988 Dukakis/Bush presidential race).

Whatever the goal, if top management acts or believes contrary to the desired action or attitude the goal is destined for failure.

You can not create a productive and fun work environment where the president is onsite and forces busy work upon his staff and is cruel to boot.

Likewise, you can not create a workplace striving to be free of sexual harassment where the top managers are insensitive (pronounced offensive) OAFs.

If you are an OAF, de-OAF yourself - before a court or administrative agency decides to help you in the process.

spike bulletHave a Strongly Enforced Sexual Harassment Policy

First, adopt the policy and make it part of the culture of the company.

Second, live by it - not because it is the law, but because it is the right thing to do.

With this attitude - as opposed to one of begrudging compliance - your workplace, your company's productivity and the value of your company will be enhanced.

Copyright 1997 Richard K. Berger (contact [at] RickyBerger is the founder of Berger Law Office, which concentrates its practice in representing emerging businesses and employees with their job-related and pre and post-employment needs. Disclaimer: The above article should not be considered or relied upon as legal or other advice in any manner whatsoever.