Helping Clients Towards A Better Future

Through Integrity, Service, and Justice

Contact Our Firm

What You Need to Know About Hostile Work Environments

Work should be a safe and positive environment where employees can thrive and grow professionally.

Unfortunately, intimidation and rampant harassment aren’t as uncommon as we’d like to think.

If companies let this behavior go unchecked, they can create a hostile environment where employees feel uncomfortable and unable to complete their work.

This article examines what makes a hostile work environment, identifies potential warning signs, and explains how employees can report harassment and get help.

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment exists when pervasive harassment, discrimination, or unwelcoming behavior severely impacts an employee’s performance, job satisfaction, or mental health.

These toxic workplaces are caused by the following:

  • Harassment based on race, gender, age, disability, or other protected characteristics
  • Offensive or intimidating behavior, such as bullying or threats
  • Sexual harassment, including unwanted advances, inappropriate touching, or offensive comments
  • Retaliation for reporting illegal activities or unethical practices
  • Constant criticism or unreasonable job demands

Retaliation is especially problematic. 68% of sexual harassment cases reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) involve allegations of reprisal when victims speak up about a hostile environment.

How to identify a hostile work environment

For a workplace to be considered hostile, the behavior you experience must be (a) unwelcome, (b) interfere with your ability to complete your work and (c) occur regularly (even after it’s been reported).

It is essential to consider the type of undesired behavior or conduct you are experiencing. Think about how often it happens, how long it has been going on, and the context in which it occurred.

Here are some warning signs that your work environment could be hostile:

  • High turnover rates
  • Increased stress or anxiety
  • Loss of motivation in work
  • A persistently negative or hostile atmosphere
  • Consistently being excluded from meetings or important communication
  • Being given unrealistic targets or deadlines
  • Being micromanaged, especially if it’s not common practice in the workplace
  • Excessively negative or unconstructive feedback
  • Being given duties or tasks that are not part of yourjob description
  • Discomfort when around or interacting with certain coworkers

3 types of harassment found in a hostile work environment

Three categories of harassment describe unlawful hostile work environments in California and are prohibited by state and federal law.

Verbal harassment

Verbal harassment occurs when someone’s language or behavior makes it difficult, uncomfortable, or even impossible for another employee to perform their job effectively.

Some examples include:

  • Making inappropriate or offensive jokes directed at someone’s race, gender, religion, disability, or age
  • Using derogatory or demeaning language when referring to a coworker
  • Insulting someone’s intelligence, abilities, or personal characteristics
  • Making threats toward someone’s job security, physical safety, or property
  • Making lewd comments, discussing someone’s sexual activities, or making unwanted sexual advances

Physical harassment

Physical harassment is a form of abuse that involves unwanted, aggressive, or threatening physical contact.

Physical harassment may include:

  • Hitting, slapping, or punching
  • Shoving, pushing, or grabbing
  • Unwanted touching, such as groping or fondling
  • Physical intimidation, such as standing too close or using threatening gestures
  • Restraining or holding someone against their will

Nonverbal harassment

Non-verbal harassment involves behavior, actions, or displays that are offensive, intimidating, or otherwise create a hostile environment for the targeted individual but does not include spoken or written words. Some examples of non-verbal harassment include:

  • Inappropriate touching or physical contact
  • Leering or suggestive facial expressions
  • Invasion of personal space
  • Offensive hand gestures or body language
  • Unwanted or unnecessary proximity
  • Displaying sexually suggestive or otherwise offensive material
  • Stalking or following someone persistently
  • Deliberate exclusion or isolation from work activities or social events
  • Sabotage of a person’s work or belongings
  • Any other non-verbal behaviors that make someone feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or unwelcome in the workplace

How to protect yourself from a hostile work environment

Facing a hostile work environment can be a challenging and stressful experience.

Here are some tips for how employees can protect themselves from repeated harassment and turn their focus back to work.

Report harassment to Human Resources

It’s HR’s job to investigate harassment claims and make the necessary decisions to end the inappropriate behavior immediately.

Consider filing a complaint

Californians can pursue a sexual harassment claim by filing a civil lawsuit or formal complaint with the EEOC or DFEH.

Retain a lawyer

If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination or harassment, it may be time to seek legal counsel. An experienced attorney can help you understand your rights and legal options.

Let Makarem & Associates help you today!

A hostile work environment can have severe and lasting effects on an employee’s mental and emotional well-being.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area and need the help of an experienced sexual harassment attorney, reach out today to schedule a consultation.


How do you talk to HR about a hostile work environment?

When discussing a hostile work environment with HR, it’s essential to be clear and concise. Explain what has been happening and how it has affected you, and emphasize that you seek a resolution. HR’s role is to investigate and address workplace issues, so be prepared to provide any information that may be helpful in that process.

What does the EEOC consider a hostile work environment?

The EEOC considers a workplace hostile when an employee experiences harassment or discrimination severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that makes you feel uncomfortable and hinders your work. It is also important to note that the behavior must occur regularly, even after it is reported, and be severe enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive.

What are the three types of harassment in a hostile work environment?

The three types of harassment in a hostile work environment are verbal, physical, and nonverbal.