The definition of a hostile work environment can sometimes seem pretty subjective. But as with many workplace situations, it’s all about perception to the employee. And as we all know, perception is reality, especially for the employee who feels they’ve been subjected to a hostile work environment.
Hostile work environments can result from any number of workplace interactions, whether between two coworkers, between a supervisor and direct report, or between an owner and any employee of the company. When your employees come to work every day, they have a certain level of expectation that they won’t be subjected to a hostile situation. They also have the right not to be subjected to it.
We’re not suggesting that every owner and manager needs to tiptoe around the office and avoid saying anything, but rather that it’s critical to be aware of how you talk to employees and of the vocabulary used in your office. There are plenty of ways to communicate with employees, even during a disciplinary issue, without creating a hostile workplace.
There are also ways to ensure that a hostile work environment doesn’t take over your company. As with situations of harassment, every employee should know that they have three avenues to report an issue with a coworker. Typically that includes their direct supervisor, a manager above their direct supervisor, and someone in human resources.
A hostile work environment also extends to situations where you may not be talking to an employee at all. Constructive discharge is one of the biggest areas of hostile work environment, and it often gets overlooked. What is constructive discharge? It’s the situation where the owner or supervisor is frustrated with an employee but won’t take action to terminate, so they start avoiding them or taking responsibilities away from them without clearly communicating the changes.
The goal, of course, for that supervisor or manager is that the employee will get frustrated in return and simply leave the company. This type of situation can put your company at substantial financial risk from EEOC penalties, because it’s a textbook case of constructive discharge. EEOC guidelines classify constructive discharge under a form of retaliation, and it’s pretty easy for an employee to prove.
If you have a situation with an employee not performing to expectations, your best approach is to document everything and have the necessary conversations with that employee regarding their unsatisfactory performance. If poor performance and opportunities to correct it are well documented, your claim has a much better chance of withstanding EEOC scrutiny. But if you fail to document and push an employee out the door by ignoring them, you’re likely to be penalized by the EEOC if the employee files a complaint.
Aside from the monetary risk of such actions, allowing a hostile work environment to take hold also results in loss of talent and difficulty in recruiting new talent. For growth-minded businesses, recruiting and retaining top talent is a must. Don’t put your business at risk by ignoring situations that create a hostile work environment.