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Workplace Bullying vs Hostile Work Environment: What’s the Difference?

Most people associate the term “bullying” with school-age children. But the truth is, bullying comes in many forms and spans countless demographics. 

By definition, bullying is when a person seeks to harm, intimidate, or coerce another person. Some adults illicit these intimidation tactics in the workplace to get what they want. 

As an employer, it’s your duty to protect your employees and promote a positive work environment. But before you can, you should know the difference between bullying and a hostile work environment.

Here, we’ll explore what defines these two scenarios and how to handle them. 

Bullying vs. a Hostile Work Environment

To prevent both bullying and a hostile work environment, employers must understand the warning signs.

What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is any situation where an employee feels discriminated against. Discrimination can come from co-workers, administrators, supervisors, vendors, clients, or visitors.

Witnesses to discrimination are also considered victims if hearing and seeing it makes them uncomfortable. Like a plague, both harassment and bullying can easily spread through an entire office, negatively impacting more than just the intended target. 

Individuals are legally protected from negative comments and conduct based on gender, age, race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, or disability that interfere with their work performance. Employees should never feel intimidated or harassed. 

Not only are these behaviors immoral but they’re also illegal. They can negatively impact job performance, productivity, and an individual’s self-esteem. These ramifications are often felt both in and out of the workplace.

Signs of Workplace Bullying

A hostile work environment is often the result of workplace bullying. Continued harassment or discrimination will eventually create an unwelcoming and uncomfortable work environment for employees.

To help protect yourself and your employees, it’s important you recognize the signs of workplace bullying before the situation gets out of hand. 

Here are just a few warning signs that bullying may be an issue in your establishment:

  • Repeated lying or deceit by the accused
  • Isolation of the victim
  • Intimidation of one employee to another
  • The accused minimizes the situation or dodges questions

As an equal opportunity employer, it’s essential that you’re aware of warning signs that someone is being bullied and also signs that suggest someone is harassing a coworker. 

Keeping close tabs on managers and administrators is also important. All too often individuals use positions of power to intimidate subordinate employees. 

Implementing a human resource system like Worklogic can help you both identify and address all forms of workplace harassment before it escalates to a hostile work environment. This helps free up your time and allows you to focus on other tasks that need your attention

Worklogic can also help with workplace investigations in the event that someone reports employee harassment or bullying.

The Legal Side of Preventing a Hostile Work Environment 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for protecting employees against discrimination in all forms. These laws protect both current employees and future job applicants. 

Employers are not permitted to discriminate based on race, color, age, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), disability or national origin. Individuals have certain rights to fight against discrimination in the workplace which includes first filing a formal complaint with their supervisor, then filing a lawsuit if the situation isn’t addressed. 

These rules and regulations are outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees and includes federal, state, and local governments. 

This law also protects those in private and public universities, colleges, labor organizations, and employment agencies.

Steps for Filing a Work Discrimination Claim

There are laws in place to not only protect employees from harassment but also guaranteeing their voice is heard. 

As the employer, you’re legally obligated to protect all employees from discrimination and harassment. Unless you can prove that you actively tried to prevent the harassment or that the victim refused help, you could be facing legal charges.

It’s also illegal for an employer to discriminate or retaliate against an individual for exercising these rights. 

It’s also unlawful for a supervisor or administrator to threaten an employee’s job based on the current, unhealthy work environment. That means that an employer cannot threaten to fire, demote, or doc an employee’s pay if they refuse to work under hostile conditions. 

To avoid retaliation, all employees should educate themselves in the definition of unlawful harassment in the workplace before filing a claim with the EEOC. You can file a claim either in person, by phone, or by mail. By law, employees must report the incident within 180 days but it’s recommended they do so immediately.

If the victim feels their case isn’t being properly handled through the EEOC (or if six months passes with no action), they can contact legal counsel to file a lawsuit.

Preventing Workplace Bullying and Harassment

Preventing both bullying and harassment in the workplace takes a proactive approach. By hiring an experienced HR team like Worklogic, you can provide free, state-approved training and education to all of your employees.

The more educated your staff is about what negative behaviors lead to a hostile work environment, the more likely they’ll be to avoid them at all costs. 

It’s in your best interest to create a policy in your employee handbook that outlines what constitutes bullying in the workplace. List all of the punishable offenses and what consequences and penalties are associated with each infraction. 

Make sure all employees receive a copy of the policy and sign-off that they read and understand it. This will help protect you against legal action down the line.

Your employee handbook should also include expectations of behavior. Not only should employees know what behaviors are unacceptable, but they should also have a code of conduct to follow and understand their job descriptions and company expectations. 

How to Promote a Positive Work Environment 

In addition to identifying and preventing workplace harassment, you can take steps to promote and encourage a positive work environment.

Team Building Events and Activities

There’s no better way to promote a cohesive work environment than team building activities. Team members who get along outside of work are much more likely to work better in the office.

Plan events, parties, and activities that are both fun and beneficial for employees. Just remember that your staff doesn’t need to be friends in order to work well together. It’s more important that they recognize each other’s strengths and learn how to respect each other’s differences.

Lunch and Learns are a great way to combine team building and necessary training programs.

Promote Mutual Respect

Speaking of respect, this is a big factor when promoting a positive, accepting work environment. From top administrators down to new hires and even interns, there should be mutual respect among everyone.

Outside of being coworkers, each individual has human rights and deserves to be treated with respect. Prevent negative situations by identifying and eliminating any signs of discrimination and bullying from the onset. The more proactive you are, the less likely a small problem will grow out of control. 

Maintain Open Lines of Communication

Harassment and workplace bullying is rooted in intimidation. When a victim of workplace harassment feels that their job is in jeopardy, they’re more hesitant to speak up. 

As the employer, it’s your job to keep an open line of communication. All employees should feel comfortable coming to you with questions, concerns, or reports of a hostile work environment. 

Have an open-door-policy at your place of business. Show employees that you’re available to listen and truly care about their happiness and safety. In the long-run, isolating workplace harassment now will prevent more serious complications down the road.

Lead by Example

Change and positivity start with you. When you promote a positive work environment, employees will follow suit.

Attend all HR training, team building events, and office parties or meetings where you can show employees the unity and support your administration offers.

A Hostile Work Environment Can Destroy Your Business From the Inside Out

While this might seem like a dramatic statement, it’s true. Not only will a hostile work environment slowly chip away at your current success, but it could destroy future growth and potential.

No one wants to work somewhere they feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or threatened. Your reputation will suffer if your company becomes known as a hostile workplace where employees are discriminated against.

Being dubbed a hostile work environment means more than just bruising your ego. As you already learned, failing to protect your employees from bullying and harassment can have legal ramifications. 

Let Worklogic streamline your human resource efforts. Contact us for a free consultation today!

Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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