Hey--No Need to Get Hostile
Hey--No Need to Get Hostile

Hey--No Need to Get Hostile

The term "hostile environment" can strike terror in the hearts of HR professionals.

And with good reason.

Many employees would never even consider uttering the words "hostile work environment" unless there was a serious problem. Others, however, throw them around like confetti--claiming that things like cranky co-workers and malfunctioning computers create intolerable working conditions, when they're really just minor sources of frustration.

What's the best way to protect your company from the expense and effort of defending baseless workplace harassment claims?

You don't need to get hostile--you just need a smart anti-harassment policy. A good policy gives the organization full legal protection, without smothering employee productivity in a morass of unnecessary rules.

First Things First: What is a "Hostile Environment"?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act defines "hostile environment" harassment as behavior that is:

  • Based on a protected category, like an employee's race, ethnicity, national origin, sex (including pregnancy), religion, age, disability, or genetic information, and
  • Is so severe and pervasive that it creates a work environment the average reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Many states and localities have similar laws regarding workplace harassment. As a human resources professional, you should familiarize yourself with the state and local rules regarding harassment and hostile work environments.

Creating a Harassment Policy That Works

Clearly, not every instance of employee annoyance or discomfort falls into the "hostile environment" category. Nevertheless, you should move promptly to determine whether any employee's claim of a "hostile environment" falls under one of the protected classifications. Use the following process to create and implement a harassment policy that works.

Step One: Define the Problem

The first step an anti-harassment policy should take is to adequately define "hostile environment" for the needs of your company. The definition should encompass the legal definitions given in federal, state, and local laws. It should also be stated in plain language, so that employees can understand it clearly.

While many employers stick to simply echoing the federal definition of "hostile environment" harassment, some companies think more broadly. The federal definition sets a standard for determining liability. In other words, it acts as a "floor" for proper conduct, not a "ceiling." Companies that prefer their employees to aim higher in their professional ethics and treatment of others often draft "zero tolerance" or similar workplace harassment policies.

A "zero tolerance" policy has benefits and drawbacks. By raising the bar, it encourages employees to stay on their best professional behavior, reducing the chances of an incident that actually violates federal or state law. On the other hand, such a policy often makes more work for human resources personnel, who must enforce the company's chosen penalties for behavior that violates the policy, but does not break the law.

Include a process for investigating claims of a hostile environment, so that employees who make such claims know what to expect.

Step Two: Distribute and Train

Once you've drafted and approved your policy, distribute it to all employees. You may wish to have employees sign a statement noting that they are aware of the company's anti-harassment policy and have received a copy of it.

Reading the policy is a crucial first step for employees--but it should not be the last. Use training sessions to bring employees and managers "up to speed" on the new policy and to test their knowledge and understanding of its contents. You may wish to hold these trainings periodically after the policy goes into effect, in order to teach new employees what the company expects and to refresh the memories of longstanding employees.

Step Three: Enforce

Even with a policy in place, you may still have to deal with claims of a "hostile work environment." When such a claim arises, move quickly to determine whether the complaint describes an actual breach of the company's policy, the law, or both.

For instance, suppose an employee complains that the person in the next cubicle plays his music too loudly and thus creates a "hostile work environment."

Does this complaint actually describe a breach of the policy or the law? It might, if the music is being turned up in order to harass the complaining employee with lyrics that deride the employee's race, sex, religion, or other protected characteristics. In this situation, as with any other complaint, you should act promptly to determine if the claim is legitimate.

Set a Higher Standard

Consistent enforcement of a written policy can go a long way toward protecting employers from "hostile environment" harassment claims. Use the suggestions in this article to set a high standard for behavior and encourage your workers to live up to it.