Guide To Surviving A Hostile Work Environment

Define Hostile Work Environment

According to, a hostile working environment is one where discriminatory and unwelcome conduct becomes so “severe or pervasive” that it alters an employee’s conditions of employment and creates an “abusive work environment”.

Examples Of Hostile Work Environment

In America, courts have interpreted harassment in the workplace to mean speech or conduct based on “race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status, or, in some jurisdictions, sexual orientation, political affiliation, citizenship status, marital status, or personal appearance” of the person complaining or of a reasonable person.

Career women: If you feel you are a victim of harassment in your workplace, the first thing you can do for yourself is to find out what your legal rights are as an employee. You may want to consult a lawyer to discuss your legal position and possible courses of action.

Often though, the sort of hostile work environment we may find ourselves in is not quite so serious or threatening. But a hostile work environment of the kind I am going to mention can still cause a significant amount of personal stress if not dealt with. Some of the causes are physical, some are people-related.

Other Examples Of Hostile Work Environment

    • Emotionally Toxic Work Environment

The management is ignorant or weak. The supervisor (aka Office Bully) creates a hostile work environment with subtle threats and psychological or verbal abuse that fall just short of what is illegal. He feels safe in the knowledge that no one would dare to complain. Not when the economy is still in recession and the fear of job loss is real. And if they did complain, the management won’t do anything about it anyway.

    • Results-only Work Environment

This is a hostile work environment in that it is all about outcomes, systems and procedures. People figure very little. Workplace health and safety rules are observed, because the organization wants to be seen to comply with the law.

The management doesn’t care how you (the employee) are doing as long as you turn up and you produce the results they want.

There is no time for staff well being or discussions about how to boost stress management skills. You are here to work. If you don’t like it, you are free to leave. No one is making you stay.

    • Good Work Environment

On the whole, you’ve got little to complain about. You have a safe and clean work environment. An efficient work environment. A structured work environment.

So if there are no hostile work environment issues, why fuss?

Because the organization could be passing up on the opportunity to be really outstanding, and all it takes is paying attention to the little things…

      • Like making sure pregnant women and individuals with health conditions are physically situated as far from office renovations as possible. Better still, how about arranging for them to work from home until the renovations are completed and it’s safe again for them to be on site?
      • Using ergonomic furniture so that employees work comfortably and have less likelihood of incurring repetitive stress injuries.
      • Catching and celebrating employees doing well, instead of pouncing on them when they make mistakes.
      • Encouraging suggestions and implementing them, not just filing them away.
      • Helping employees find and use their personal strengthson the job as much as possible.

This is probably the everyday working environment most of us are familiar with. Not in the same league as the hostile work environment that is so bad as to be unbearable, but not so great as to inspire loyalty and beyond-the-call-of-duty commitment.

In other words, good – but not great.

How To Create A Healthy Work Environment For Yourself

Obviously no workplace is perfect. But there are always things you can do as an individual to change your negative work environment and make the day go more smoothly and productively for yourself and your colleagues.

Ask yourself the question that author Jim Collins posed to companies: why not be great?

    • Do what you can.

Don’t chafe over what you are powerless to change. Instead, find out what you can do. And do it. Make it your job to discover what kind of work environment best supports you in your work. Don’t expect your HR department or staff wellbeing committee to do this for you.

Now get to work on changing the work environment, and make it the RIGHT working environment for you.

Don’t think it can be done?

Let’s say you believe in feng shui (the ancient Chinese art of living in harmony with the physical elements of your environment). You discover that your desk and chair are facing your ‘weak’ position, and that your wall should be yellow and not gray. You may not be able to change the color of the wall, but you probably can reposition your desk and chair so that they now attract success and career opportunities.

Another example.

Say you work in a really dim and dull room and it’s affecting your eyesight, not to mention your mood.

Can you create a bright working environment for yourself with a study lamp and a bunch of fresh flowers?

You get the idea.

Marcus Buckingham calls this rewriting your career description under your boss’ nose.

Take time to figure out things that matter to you, and that your boss probably won’t get round to asking. Like whether you thrive when working in a team or individually, whether you like structure or adapting as you go, whether you are better at starting projects or completing them.

Your perfect job or ideal job should be a good fit for how you like to work.

This suggests, of course, that you should be discerning from the start, even when you are job hunting. Think of it this way. You are interviewing your employer for compatibility inasmuch as they are interviewing you for compatibility, if that makes sense. You have as much right to demand a good job fit as they do.

If you begin with the mindset that some of us have been brought up with, that you shouldn’t be choosy and you should take any job that comes along, and you neglect to consider how your skills, strengths and career goals fit with the requirements of the job, there may be negative repercussions further down the road.

The effort and the strain of doing work that doesn’t fit with your strongest traits is one real possibility.

Think of how you feel and how your body responds when you are in a work situation that you do not naturally enjoy, say giving a presentation to senior management. You may tense up, your jaw may clench, your heart may beat abnormally fast, your thoughts are all over the place.

Now imagine subjecting yourself to that every day.

Which leads to a natural question…

If there is little or no skill match and my job is stressing me out, should I quit?

When Is It Okay To Quit?

It sounds very dramatic and satisfying (especially if you’ve been feeling oppressed or unhappy at work) to announce, “I quit!”

But quitting is just one of several responses to an ill-fitting career.

Without knowing the details of your specific situation, I would hesitate to generalize. However, I would suggest that quitting be treated as a weapon of last resort.

Instead, I would suggest looking first at what you can do about your hostile work environment.

Let’s suppose you are not yet so desperately unhappy in your job. You are just wanting to find out if there is anything you can try to make your job and you get along better.

Here are a few things you can do.

      • First, be clear about how you most enjoy working and what situations make you feel strong.

This is something only you can do. Your boss may not see the significance of a strengths-focused approach, and HR may have no time or interest. But you are the main stakeholder in the progress and satisfaction you get out of your career.

      • Second, analyze your career description and see how you can tweak parts of your job so you can more of what you love and what you excel at.

Becoming an expert on our strengths is one of the basic life skills we need to master for our own benefit, and more so if we are on the brink of a midlife career change.

In recent years, knowing what are your strengths has become the central theme of career books like Now, Discover Your Strengths and Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance.

    • Practise the Golden Rule.

Graciousness has become almost old-fashioned, as though it has no place in modern culture. Yet we instinctively recoil from rude people and thoughtless acts, and we are drawn to people who are courteous and kind.

We know the Golden Rule works, that it is better for everyone and ourselves to do as we would like to do be done to. But putting it into practice every day? That’s something else.

If you believe in karma, you know that goodness and evil have their own reward. If you believe in the Law of Attraction, you know that the quality of thought you put out to the universe is what you will attract. Think negative thoughts and you receive lack. Think positive and abundant thoughts, and you will attract abundance and success – the perfect antiodote to a hostile work environment. As you sow, so shall you reap.

So practise being thoughtful, helpful and respectful at work. Try doing random anonymous acts of kindness and watch how they transform the vibe in the office. If your work is praised, share the credit with those who have helped you. If someone does you a disservice, do not be too quick to get back at him.

In other words, dispel the negativity of a hostile work environment by encouraging what is good, true and right.

By focusing your thoughts, attitudes and behavior on what is good and true and worthwhile, you will find that you are consciously creating a positive, healthy work environment for yourself and everyone around you.

You have every chance of being a happy worker, and so do they.

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