HR Question: Definition of Hostile Work Environment

Q: What is the definition of a hostile work environment?

A: A “hostile work environment” is one of the two types of sexual harassment prohibited by law. The scope of this type of harassment is broad, but is generally defined by the following examples provided by the Department of Labor:

A hostile environment can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the individual interacts on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive.

Examples of behaviors that may contribute to an unlawful hostile environment include:
  • Discussing sexual activities
  • Telling off-color jokes concerning race, sex, disability, or other protected basis
  • Unnecessary touching
  • Commenting on physical attributes
  • Displaying sexually suggestive or racially insensitive pictures
  • Using demeaning or inappropriate terms or epithets
  • Using indecent gestures
  • Using crude language
  • Sabotaging the victim’s work
  • Engaging in hostile physical conduct

The Department of Labor provides more information on when a hostile work environment violates the law and suggested information for creating a policy here.

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