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What is Hostile Work Environment Harassment?

What is Hostile Work Environment Harassment?

Certain types of sexual harassment can create a hostile work environment. But what constitutes a hostile work environment, and are you part of one without knowing?


If you or a colleague feels uncomfortable going to work due to the offensive behaviour of others, then there’s a good chance you have a hostile work environment. There are many behavioural patterns that be classified as creating a hostile work environment through bullying on subjects such as:


  • Race

  • Religion

  • Sex

  • National Origin

  • Age

  • Disability


A hostile work environment can also be created through sexual harassment using offensive material, inappropriate comments, sexual jokes, unnecessary physical conduct and persistent unwanted interactions. It also includes offensive behaviour that creates a hostile working environment that is intolerable, intimidating or abusive. Anyone can create a hostile working environment including supervisors, an agent of the employer, a colleague or even a non-employee. The question is:


What should an employee do if the find themselves in a hostile working environment?

If an employee is experiencing a hostile work environment, they need to ask the offender to stop this behavior. If the employee finds this difficult, they should ask for assistance from HR or a manager. These will also serve as a witness that you asked the offender to stop their unwanted attention. The offender needs to be put on notice that their behavior is inappropriate and won't be tolerated. In the majority of cases, the behavior will stop.

Do your employees and supervisors understand what constitutes a hostile work environment?

In order to be held liable for harassment that occurs between two employees, it must be shown that the employer either knew, or should have known, about the situation and did not take steps to prevent it from occurring. A hostile work environment can also be created for other employees who were not actually the target of the behavior. Anyone can be made to feel uncomfortable by inappropriate behavior in the workplace if the employer does not take immediate steps to stop the situation once it has been brought to light. If the supervisor is the harasser, the employer can typically be held liable by default.

The legal requirements for a hostile work environment include:


  • The actions or behavior must discriminate against a protected classification such as age, religion, disability or race.

  • The behavior or communication must be pervasive, lasting over time and not limited to an off-color remark or two that someone found annoying. These incidents should be reported to Human Resources for intervention.

  • The problem becomes significant if it is all around a worker, continues over time and is not investigated effectively enough to make the behavior stop.


All employers may want to maintain records on employee sexual harassment training to avoid claims of non-compliance. If training is mandated, failure to provide it as required will make an employer much more vulnerable to liability should an employee sue in court for sexual harassment. Where unlawful sexual harassment is found, ignoring the training mandates opens up an employer to punitive damages, which are often several times greater than the employee’s compensatory damages.

To help you increase your skills in workplace harassment prevention and dealing with a hostile work environment, please call us at (866) GO-VUBIZ or (866) 468-8249 or email us at