What Defines a Hostile Working Environment?

Written by zoe nichols
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What Defines a Hostile Working Environment?
Harsh or even mean bosses might make the workplace unpleasant, but do not necessarily imply a "hostile working environment." (angry business lady image by jacojvr from Fotolia.com)

A "hostile working environment," in and of itself, is not typically grounds for civil action. In the legal sense, the term describes negative working conditions, resulting from uncomfortable interactions between personnel within a shared workspace.


Constitutional law protects individual civil liberties, prohibiting discrimination in the workplace based on age, gender, religion, national origin, genetic make-up or disability. Unwelcome or unwanted conduct or violating these provisions is considered harassing, hostile and discriminatory.

What Defines a Hostile Working Environment?
The U.S. Supreme Court upholds federal laws protecting individuals from unfair discrimination in the workplace. (US Supreme Court image by dwight9592 from Fotolia.com)


Whether something is considered workplace harassment depends on the severity, duration and nature of the assailant/ victim relationship, as it is subjective and varies widely. In most cases (outside of discrimination), the harassment must be profoundly offensive before making it an illegally hostile environment.


If a co-worker reacts punitively (verbally, physically or professionally) against another co-worker for engaging in a "protected activity"(for instance, whistle blowing), it is called "retaliation," which is hostile and unlawful.

What Defines a Hostile Working Environment?
Under no circumstances may a person create a hostile working environment in retaliation against a co-worker for her protected actions. (fighting your way to the top image by Tracy Martinez from Fotolia.com)

Constructive Discharge

Also illegal, "constructive discharge" often occurs when an employer, who is bound by strict contract terms of employee termination, purposefully creates a hostile environment to encourage an employee's resignation.

What Workplace Harassment Is Not

It is unrealistic to pursue litigation for an isolated incident of harassment unless it is blatantly abusive, shocking or extreme. Generally, too, a workplace is not considered hostile unless it interferes with employee job performance.

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