Less than pleasant experiences within the workplace are not an uncommon phenomenon. In fact, half of all working Australians have experienced some form of workplace conflict. This does not necessarily mean that a hostile environment is present but when such situations persist or are of a certain severity, this can very well be the case. As an employer or employee, it is incredibly important to be aware of how hostile environments can take shape and what consequences they pose in order to then take the necessary steps for prevention.

What exactly is a ‘Hostile Environment’?

A hostile environment is one where an employee is made to feel excessively uncomfortable, to the extent where their ability to perform at work is impeded upon. Any inappropriate or offensive behavior that jeopardizes one’s sense of safety and security at work or fosters intimidation and fear can contribute to a hostile work environment. It can hence be difficult to draw clear boundaries on what behavior is considered hostile, however, some of the more prevalent themes include:

  • The pervasive and continuous nature of such conduct, spanning a longer period of time as opposed to isolated incidents
  • The usage of fear and intimidation tactics such as aggressiveness, ridicule and threats

What would this look like in practice?

The shape and form that the hostile behaviour can take operates on a massive range but some examples include:

  • Verbally abusive language or commentary
  • Behavior that isolates or segregates a person/group
  • Gestures or jokes that are mocking or offensive
  • Any material circulated via paper or digitally about an employee and relates to their race, religion, sex etc.
  • Unwelcome and/or excessive physical contact

It is also important to note that this hostile behaviour can come from anyone within the workplace and a power imbalance is not always a necessary component. Hence, the perpetrator might be an individual with a position of power, i.e. a supervisor or manager, or someone who is a coworker with no authority over the employee.

Why are hostile environments difficult to identify?

Hostile environments often cannot be traced to a singular cause but rather the combination of a multitude of reasons that amalgamate into an environment that is unfit for work. It is hence important to note that many disagreeable incidents, depending on their severity and recurrence, may not constitute a hostile environment. For example, whilst being unhappy with the perks or bonuses provided or receiving negative feedback on your work might be unpleasant, they are not necessarily a breach of the law. Almost all employees have some grievances at work but a hostile environment goes beyond general dissatisfaction and is detrimental to an employee’s ability to work in an environment they feel safe and respected in.

Consequences of Hostile Environments on the Victim

Facing a hostile environment at one’s workplace results in innumerable and various consequences for the subjected employee and has far reaching implications on their quality of life outside of work as well. Primarily this includes a detrimental impact on the ability to complete tasks and meet work expectations, however there are also many other consequences that can arise if the situation is not handled adequately.

These can include:

  • Decline in mental and emotional wellbeing from shouldering the stress and anxiety that the workplace induces
  • Lack of participation in the workplace due to time and energy being directed elsewhere
  • Impact on physical health (i.e. higher blood pressure, sleep quality etc.)
  • A low sense of belonging at work
  • Decreased confidence in abilities at work which in turn can also impact the quality of work produced

In reaching out to the relevant authority for assistance, employees often also face the burden of proof. Typically, such scenarios often rely on the individual to provide evidence of any harm inflicted and the difficulty of this alongside the pressure it places only serves to induce more stress.

If they feel the general company culture is unsupportive, they may also be hesitant to speak up regardless due to the possibility of facing consequences such as limited opportunities for growth, lack of promotions, additional hostility within the workplace or even being fired.

Consequences of Hostile Environments on the Company

Each country has its own regulatory bodies and laws that work to protect employees. In Australia, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth) are the primary pieces of legislation cited in regard to the rights of the employee to work in an environment they feel safe and comfortable in.

Discrimination and harassment is illegal and any individual that feels they have been subjected to a hostile working environment can seek legal action against the liable company. Due to the difficult nature of establishing that a hostile environment exists, any investigations relating to them are conducted thoroughly and heavily informed by the contextual circumstances of the situation. Legal action can be significantly detrimental to the company regardless of the outcome of the proceedings because alongside any potential financial cost, the impact on reputation can be extremely difficult to recover.

However beyond the legal consequences, there are also other far reaching effects on the company that can prove to be even more detrimental.

For example, a few possible repercussions include:

  • An unpleasant company culture
  • High turnover rates as employees walk away from the job
  • Decreased overall work performance
  • Decreased engagement and enthusiasm from employees in organization values and goals
  • Increased absenteeism when employees choose to avoid work due to the environment

The impact of these over time can have significant long term consequences on the company’s outputs, morale and reputation.