Identifying a Hostile Work Environment (+ How to Make a Claim) [2020]

hostile work environment

A hostile work environment is when behavior, actions, and communication on behalf of an employer are discriminatory in nature. Discrimination in the workplace is monitored by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This is covered under “Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and prevents employment discrimination.

While employees may feel dissatisfied with their work, manager, and demeanor of communications from their employer, it may not mean it is a “hostile work environment”. Other names for this situation include unlawful harassment, harassing conduct, workplace harassment, discriminatory harassment, illegal harassment, discriminatory workplace harassment, unwelcome harassment, unwelcome conduct, and hostile work environment harassment.

Employees who feel as though they are part of a hostile work environment have rights. Mainly, the ability to claim (under federal law) the workplace discrimination. Before an employee decides to make this claim, they should understand clear situations that constitute workplace discrimination and a hostile environment.

Hostile work environments are not as common as employees tend to believe. Below are a few examples of clear hostile behavior that constitutes making a workplace hostile:

A poor example of a hostile workplace would be workplace bullying. If a colleague is simply being rude and showing disinterest in having a friendly relationship with another coworker, this may constitute workplace bullying but is not considered a hostile workplace.

Each company may have a code of conduct or code of ethics that it provides to new employees. This handbook gives guidance on how colleagues should treat one another. An employee who feels bullied in the workplace should refer to the handbook, speak with their Human Resources department about the behavior, and make a claim.

In order for a claim to be considered the legal requirements for a hostile work environment, the following must take place:

When one or more of these are true for the employee, a hostile work environment claim (or legal action) can be made with an employment attorney who can review state and federal employment law. A hostile work environment case may be opened against the employer and employee.

Many attorneys claim to be a “hostile work environment lawyer”. While this may be true, it is best to consult an employment attorney who can properly assess a case and learn about the actions of the harasser and walk an employee through discrimination law before making a harassment claim.

Dealing with Bullying and Harassing Behavior

As an employee, if the behavior from a colleague seems to be a single off-color and uncomfortable remark, the employee should speak with the Human Resources department. This department is readily available to speak with employees regarding their comfort in the workplace.

The department will be happy to hear about any discomfort in the workplace and address the concerns before it turns into a potentially hostile working environment. The employee should meet with Human Resources, discuss the inappropriate behavior or bullying, and follow the employer’s code of ethics and code of conduct on dealing with the workplace discourse.

When filing this claim with Human Resources, it’s imperative the harassed employee shows their proof of being a reasonable person, and feeling the inappropriate behavior on behalf of another employee is unjust. The harassed employee should avoid any potential retaliation to their colleague.

Additional Resources

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author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


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