Everyone has the right to work in an environment that is based on respect and supports your wellbeing. This is the necessary level of care that every employer offices but, unfortunately, there are a lot of working environments that do not offer this to their employees. Working in, what has been coined ‘ hostile working environments’ can be an awful experience and something that can have a real effect on your mental health. So today I want to look at, firstly what precisely a hostile environment is and secondly what you can do if you are working in a hostile environment.

What is a hostile working environment?

This term is more widely used in the United States, but I think it defines what we are talking about. The legal definition of a hostile working environment is “unwelcome or offensive behaviour in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated in their place of employment”. This behaviour can manifest itself in many different ways, including unwanted comments on, for example, your gender, race, nationality, age, sexual orientation, religion or disability (there are protected characteristics that can not be discriminated against). These personal characteristics are protected by law so the conduct associated with a ‘hostile working environment’ has legal connotations and can be prosecuted.

A hostile working environment is not a shitty boss or an annoying co-worker; it’s not a rubbish office or basic wages and zero benefits. Not that these examples don’t cause an impact on your mental health. A hostile working environment consists of conduct that is discriminatory and can be reported as such.

What can you do if you are working in a hostile environment?

The first thing to say is that you do not have to put up with this behaviour. Wherever you are based in the world discriminatory and unwanted harassment is unacceptable, and you should be able to report the action to your Manager or HR representative. I can’t speak for every country but in the UK you can also take a legal approach and contact a solicitor, and you can even talk to ACAS for guidance and support.

If you decide that you don’t want to go straight down a legal route, then there are a few things you should do to make sure that you are protecting yourself and the behaviour is not being ignored. Here are a few steps to follow:

  1. Ask the employee to stop the behaviour, either directly or through your Manager or HR representative.
  2. Document everything that happens. Keep details on what happened, and the comments made or actions taken, the date and time, who was there when it happened and where it happened. Keep copies of any supporting evidence – emails and messages (on all communication platforms).
  3. If the behaviour continues, report it again to your Manager or your HR representative. It might be worth setting up a meeting with you, the other employee and your HR department to mediate the conversation. If this meeting takes place, it should be recorded and documented. You might also think about bringing another member of staff into the meeting with you for support.
  4. You can contact your trade union for advice. They might take up the case on your behalf – if there is a legal claim.
  5. You can raise a formal grievance with your employer, again this can be done with a solicitor’s advice, or you can raise the injury on your own. Either way, this is a formal complaint that your employer will have to take seriously.

If the environment is unbearable you can, of course, consider resigning. Even if you work and live in a highly competitive market, there are always other opportunities out there for you. It is also worth noting that you can still seek legal advice after you have left the employer and make a complaint. In the UK, this is called ‘constructive dismissal‘. Whatever you decided to do, please take care of yourself and your wellbeing. Nobody deserves to be treated badly at work and you should seek advice immediately if you find yourself in a hostile environment. In the UK, there is a lot of advice on this issue on the Citizens Advice website.