December 27, 2017
HR Question: Hostile Work Environment Situation
Question: An employee is claiming a hostile work environment situation. What should I do next?
Answer: Employees may use the word “hostile” without completely understanding what it means in the employment setting. Sometimes an employee will allege a “hostile work environment” simply due to a negative work experience such as being held accountable for found errors, or a feeling of unfair treatment such as not being permitted to take time away from work when others may be permitted to for a number of reasons.
Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.
Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.
However, the fact that an employee has come forward with a concern is important and compels you to investigate further. Helping an employee understand the difference of experiencing a negative event and the legal term of hostile work environment is a first step in moving forward to ask very specific questions of the employee to understand the nature and scope of the situation. Depending on details, you may need to do a complete investigation and administer appropriate training or disciplinary action. Best practice is to access a third party to perform investigations to minimize any perception of bias through the process, findings, and determined action(s).
Q&A provided by ThinkHR, powering the UST HR Workplace for nonprofit HR teams. Have HR questions? Sign your nonprofit up for a free 30-day trial here.