Recognising when a hostile environment is emerging at work can sometimes be tricky for both employees and employers. Because hostile environments can take on so many different forms, the signs can often seem vague and are difficult to identify. This makes it all the more important that employers are aware of what to look out for and actively implement practices that aim to prevent their occurrence.

The consequences of hostile environments can be incredibly detrimental at both the individual and company level so active prevention is a necessary strategy for all efficient and healthy workplaces. However, prevention strategies alone are not always enough making it also necessary to be prepared to respond to hostile environments with mitigation strategies ready in place to protect any impacted employees and the company from harm.

Signs of a Hostile Environment

There are many characteristics of a hostile environment and this itself plays into part of the reason they can be difficult to identify. Not all the signs are as easily recognised as blatant aggression and instead often consist of repeated microaggressions that culminate in a toxic environment. Understanding this and being aware of some of the common underlying themes can help employers or employees who are examining their own workplaces for hostility. Some of the key signs that a hostile environment is causing harm in a workplace include:

  • Lack of employee loyalty and commitment

A noticeable decrease in employee enthusiasm for the company, its values and projects is a good sign that something is not right and needs to be examined.

  • General job dissatisfaction

Are the employees happy in their roles or are there worrying signs such as increased absenteeism, high employee turnover rates or decreased productivity?

  • An unpleasant company culture

How is the general environment in the workplace? A pleasant company culture should not be one where employees feel excluded or subject to unfair criticism or intimidation tactics, by either co-workers or their supervisors/managers.

  • Increased complaints regarding bullying, harassment and/or employee discrimination

An increased number of complaints, particularly related to how an employee feels they have been treated, is an important sign that the company needs to take active measures to find and address the contributing issues.

What are the risk factors for hostile environments?

We’ve seen above primarily employee-based signs but the way a company operates and the practices it implements, or fails to implement, can also contribute to an increased risk of hostile environments.

These can include:

  • Management teams with poor leadership that negatively impacts employees
  • Policies and procedures that are unspecific and vague about their requirements and consequences
  • Presence of work stressors such as unrealistic job demands or poor rostering systems
  • Lack of adequate communication pathways
  • A lack of adequate training, information or resources provided to employees upon induction and throughout their time at the company

It is an employer’s responsibility to monitor for risks like those described above and ensure that they mitigate them as much as possible.

Preventing Hostile Environments

Prevention is the most cost-efficient means of handling hostile environments, not only in the financial sense but also in terms of the mental and emotional burden that the affected parties endure and the company’s overall health. To an extent, the means of prevention not only target hostile environments but are also generally conducive to a workplace that is more efficient, productive, and safe for employees.

hostile environments

There is no exhaustive list but the following are some of the key prevention methods, in alignment with those set out by Safe Work Australia, that all employers should make sure they incorporate include:

  • Display commitment to a no-bullying policy

All employees should be made aware, through induction training or otherwise, of the policy on bullying and harassment through the provision of a definition, expected behaviour, process of reporting and the possible consequences that may result from such behaviour. Any behaviour that does occur should be investigated immediately and any consequences enforced in accordance with the respective policy. No employee should be immune to this policy regardless of their position to send a clear message to all stakeholders – for example, the recent decision by James Hardie Industries to fire their CEO has helped the company firmly establish their stance and aided their general reputation. 

  • Leading by example

It is vital that the company’s leaders, including employees in authority positions, set the standard of behaviour that is expected of all individuals in the workplace. These individuals should be provided with optional, or perhaps even required, education opportunities in cultivating healthy teams and encouraging cooperation and respect.

  • Ensure that there is an efficient process for handling bullying/discrimination complaints

Make sure that the reporting and response system for any complaints is consistent, efficient, and convenient for employees. Take all complaints seriously – this is crucial in ensuring that employees feel heard and valued. A complicated and messy complaints procedure can often be stress-inducing to the complainant – a good way to prevent this would be to take a look at any recent complaints and how they have been handled, then closing any gaps in the process.

  • Checking in with the work systems

Having safe work systems in place is key to ensuring that all employees feel secure in their role, the expectations they must meet and what is required of them. When these systems are not adequate, for example if the work expectations are unreasonable, if the chain of communication is inefficient and causing problems or if the performance timeframes are not within reason, then employers need to step in and manage these issues or risk them from contributing to increased hostility. Employees should also have access to support in the workplace and regular feedback should be sought and taken into active consideration.

Responding to a Hostile Environment

If a hostile environment has emerged, it is in the best interest of the employee and the company both to act as quickly as possible to minimise the consequences that may occur as a result.

Responding as an employee to hostile environments:

As an employee impacted by a hostile environment, the actions you can take may be limited by the circumstances of your specific situation. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but implementing some of the following could potentially help in addressing the issue effectively:

  • Keep track of any hostility you have felt has been actioned against you. This burden of proof can be stressful but if you do decide to pursue further action at any point, having a record will be incredibly helpful in supporting your claims.
  • Approach your manager or HR and discuss what your options are. If you are not sure of what steps you can take or how the company can support you, approaching someone who can help you guide you can relieve some of the stress and emotional burden.
  • Set your boundaries with the individual who may be behind the hostility and make them aware that you are not comfortable with their behaviour. This can often be intimidating but also effective in calling individuals out on their behaviour
  • File an official complaint. This is the most direct way of addressing the issue of any hostility you may face. Make sure you are aware of your company’s reporting procedures and what is or could be required from you.
  • If you as an employee witness another individual being subjected to hostility, speak up and support them. Banding together against workplace hostility is important in promoting an inclusive and supportive culture.

Responding as an employer to hostile environments:

Your response as an employer will depend heavily on the exact nature of the hostile environment and how it has come to light.

  • Mediation

If the issue is within a manageable threshold of severity, as decided upon by the relevant authority, mediation can be used as an effective tool particularly if the number of involved parties is small (e.g., between two employees only)

  • Investigate immediately

As soon as a complaint is made or a hostile environment is suspected, seek action at once as per the relevant procedures of your organization. This could mean a range of things from speaking to everyone involved, deciding on what any inappropriate behaviour should be categorized as or even deciding whether there is enough information to proceed further.

  • Be comprehensive

It is incredibly important to ensure that all possible issues or areas of concern are addressed before any decisions are made. All relevant perspectives should be heard, confidentiality should be maintained, and precordial fairness ensured.

  • Following up

Once a decision has been made, a review should be held to decide if changes need to be implemented to aid in prevention. Furthermore, additional support or counselling should be offered to any impacted parties and training on an organizational level should be considered to ensure everyone is up to date on the company’s policies.

To conclude, the prevention and management of hostile environments will vary greatly across companies in accordance with their size, resources, and policies. Regardless of what methods suit an employer best, having practices and established procedures in place is crucial in preventing hostile environments from having long lasting detrimental impacts on the health of the company and its employees.