How to Properly Deal with a Hostile Work Environment

When you go to work, it may feel like the purpose of sitting down at your desk or office is to feel miserable. You’re there to do a job, not have fun or make friends, right? That’s what my mom would say about me and school. Focus on learning. While I still believe the same somewhat applies to a work environment–your sole focus should be getting your work done, not making friends–I don’t agree that you should accept conditions which make you hate every minute of your time while you’re clocked in. In the project management industry, there is a theory that there are hygiene and reward factors which contribute to an employee’s motivation. Both of these categories impact your work environment, so it’s no surprise that if someone’s unhappy, unsatisfied, or uncomfortable in their place of employment, it’s likely related to one of these reasons. However, at the extreme of those reasons are the management which is controlling your environment. I’ve found that there are more options than people want you to know about when it comes to changing your situation, and this is how you achieve change if you handle it properly.

Below is a table listing hygiene and motivation factors. “Hygiene” refers to items in the workplace that a company can control from a higher level such as their policies, your salary, and your safety, whereas the “motivation” refers to items directly relating to your position which affect you are recognized for a job well done or what options for career growth are made available to you.

Hygiene FactorsMotivation Factors
Working conditionsGrowth
StatusInterest in the job
SupervisionJob challenge
Motivation-Hygiene Theory, <;


Some employees make the mistake of running to human resources when they’re not happy about something, and they label it a hostile environment, because they think their manager has something against them, citing they didn’t get that raise they wanted or that they’re being overworked. The mistake here is not understanding the definition of a “hostile work environment”. Each state defines it in their own way, so you need to look it up for yourself first before making this claim. In my state, a hostile work environment involves harassment, and harassment is defined by the EEOC as:

Unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

For workplace harassment to be unlawful, the following elements must be present*:

  • The victim belongs to a protected class.
  • The victim was subjected to unwanted verbal or physical conduct.
  • The harassment was based on the victim’s protected class.
  • The harassment was a condition of continued employment, or the harassment created an offensive, intimidating, or hostile work environment.

If all of the above elements are present, you probably have a harassment case on your hands. If your employer knew about the harassment, but did nothing to stop it, the employer may also be liable.

*information taken from <>

Therefore, if I actually wanted to prove that I work in a hostile environment, I would need proof that my manager or someone I work with harassed me based on the protected factors described above. In my opinion, human resources is a department that I’d rather not deal with unless I absolutely have to. They’re only there to protect the company and will do everything in their power to prove that whatever statement you made is either mitigated (i.e. making you feel like you perceived something the wrong way…”That’s not what Mr. Smith meant.”) or thrown out altogether by painting you as a liar (i.e. on what date and time did this incident happen? Did anyone else see or hear it?). It’s quite a ridiculous system, if you ask me, but it works for the company. And most of the time, if an employee even has the guts to come forward with an accusation, they are shut down. Don’t be fooled if HR comes to you and says, “We really want to talk about it.” They’re just covering themselves in order to not be liable if you take your case to court, because in court the first question is usually, “Did you bring your concerns to your manager or HR before threatening legal action and give them an opportunity to fix it?”


When I look back at my years of employment, I did not feel I was in a hostile work environment until last year. My boss threatened me when I asked for feedback on my performance evaluations. He constantly picked on me whenever I asked questions or suggested ways for our team to tackle problems better, and would manipulate and control me by saying people would see me a certain way if I did x, y, z. Throughout my time with him, he also yelled at other employees (including managers) during meetings and belittled what women had to say by calling their suggestions and actions “emotional” when he would do the same if he were in their shoes when parts were late or suppliers gave poor responses to questions about the quality of their product. It’s easy to be brainwashed when you look up to your superiors and have high expectations of a company with a grand reputation, but when you take a step back and ask yourself if it’s acceptable to let someone else minimize you as a person and employee, all in the name of “business”, you see the bigger picture and pop the bubble most companies want you to stay fixed in.

Once you’re out of the bubble and have realized you deserve respect and that the behavior you’re experiencing or witnessing is not okay by any means, it takes another level of courage to stand up and do something about it. There were coworkers who agreed with me and said my boss had been doing this and worse to other female employees before me, but no one had brought the matter up to HR. Even those who did never got a response, and obviously, the manager still has his job, which means the company didn’t consider it bad enough to fire him. When in doubt, they’ll always pin it on the employee and try to edge him or her out rather than ask someone in management to step down or leave. For this reason, the following are your choices, depending on what you want to come out of this:

  1. If you want to get a manager fired: Hire a lawyer. The company will make you jump through hoops and take months of “investigation” before deeming it necessary to fire a manager unless they’ve done something severely punishable like committed sexual assault. And even in those cases, they will AGAIN, ask you to prove it, right before getting the company lawyer on his side. So if you want something done because you feel the circumstances deem it necessary, go directly to a lawyer. They’ll be able to deal with the company on your behalf and likely have more power to ask for computer records, IM exchanges, badge scans, etc. to prove your side of the story.
  2. If you want a different environment: Talk to your manager. It’s difficult to have these types of conversations, but it proves you’re a mature adult. I had biweekly chats with my offending manager to let him know how I felt about the way he treated me and addressed me. Though he didn’t admit any wrongdoing, it helped us get on better footing regarding his expectations of what I was doing, so that we could avoid his bursts of anger altogether. When I no longer felt like playing the submissive wife, and got tired of the fear that would take over me every time he walked near my cubicle or sent me an email, I brought the situation up to a trusted mentor and she suggested HR. I was still not convinced, but then when he became more aggressive in his IMs and rude in his response of anything I asked, another mentor suggested the same thing. HR didn’t help, but I was happy to be able to say that yes, I had talked to him first about my concerns, the passive aggressive emails, and the outright rude IMs–with no type of response from him, and in some cases, even lies. A manager can also help address conditions in your environment such as salary, policies, and training which you feel you’re being overlooked for because you’re pregnant, a person of color, or older. If you feel comfortable enough to discuss these things, go for it!
  3. If you want a different manager: Switch jobs. Though some of you may think you have a case to get switched to a different manager because of how yours behaves or treats you, it’s often not that easy. This isn’t McDonald’s where you can ask them to make you another burger, or Applebee’s, where you can ask to be seated at a new table if yours is dirty. There are organizations with set positions in place, and regardless of how childish or inappropriate someone acts, they can’t just bend rules or create the entire hierarchy to suit your needs. The most I’ve heard is that they’ll train managers who are not meeting the expectations of their role, whatever that means. All I know is that’s code for, “You’re stuck with this manager until you leave this role, so let’s see what we can do to make you both get along.” I tried my best to get along with the aforementioned for months before I felt like a battered victim and started doubting everything about myself because he taunted me saying, “What will others think of you if you do x, y, z?” Everything I did or wanted to do, even if it was taking on more leadership, or WEARING HEADPHONES on a trip, had to be approved by him, like I was his doll. When he yelled during our meeting with HR and this woman literally did nothing to even make him aware that this type of response is exactly why he was in a meeting with her, I realized my time with him had expired. I needed to get out or continue to lose parts of myself at the expense of the company’s “business needs” since I was damn good at what I did, yet getting kicked down and spit on everyday by a man who obviously had some issues to work through. So yeah, I took matters in to my own hands, and left.


I can’t stress this enough. For any interactions dealing with how you will handle the situation of your hostile work environment, keep it all in writing. From the angry or racist messages your manager or coworkers sent you to the requests you emailed management about setting up a time to meet about your concerns, everything needs to be in print. Don’t trust anyone’s word. They will be happy to deny it when the time comes for you to state your side of the story and them to defend the company. They’ll say you never requested a meeting or told them about what was happening, or they could twist your words. My human resources office admitted to not keeping formal notes (how convenient), so when I met with him, I started keeping my own meeting minutes that I would then email back to them. This was not only for recordkeeping but for verification. If they didn’t reply with any corrections, it was my proof that they accepted my version of what happened during the phone call or Skype meeting, and there would be no room for them to say it was otherwise.

Be very detailed! Use names, titles, dates, and times whenever possible. And if a resolution is reached verbally, type it up in an email and start it out with, “Per our phone/in-person conversation, this is what was agreed to by X, Y, Z.”

Be professional, and have a mentor double check it for you if you’re not confident enough.


  • Cry, yell or show other signs of extreme emotion, because it will detract from the center of your argument: your hostile environment and others’ behavior and point it back to your behavior and question whether you act like this everyday
  • Base your argument on things that aren’t tied to the facts (i.e. my kids’ ballet lessons are expensive, and I needed a raise but I was denied one)
  • Talk to everyone in the office about your concerns before addressing it directly with your manager or HR, because then they’ll have a heads up and be more prepared than you are.
  • Badmouth or use names. This is unprofessional and will not help you accomplish your goals (whether it’s to change your environment, get consequences for your boss, or get recommendations for another job).


HR is there for the company, not you. However, it’s important to know what a “hostile” work environment means before you make a claim to the company, so you know if risking an awkward situation is actually going to mean anything. It’s also crucial to know what you want. Sometimes, if you don’t want to make amends or are certain your manager isn’t going to change, going through mediation meetings with them or being subjected to a hoax of an investigation is not worth your time and could end up making you feel worse. Have the wisdom to know when fight or flight is appropriate, and the courage to act on that wisdom when you feel ready.

And remember, you’re not alone. Going to another manager before addressing yours or HR is smart, too! There are people in the company who care about the employees and want to see you succeed and enjoy coming in to work each day.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

7x07 april ludgate aubrey plaza GIF on GIFER - by Starsmith

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