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Is a Hostile Workplace Making Your Employees Miserable?

Business News Daily Editor
Business News Daily Editor

According to new research, 1 in 5 American workers deals with hostile, unpleasant and even dangerous conditions on the job. Here's what to do about it.

  • 20% of employees face hostile conditions at work.
  • Legally, a hostile work environment is found to be offensive, hostile or intimidating due to discrimination.
  • Employee satisfaction can improve productivity by 20%. 

Imagine waking up every day and going to a workplace where you felt uncomfortable or even unsafe. That's the reality for 20% of the American workforce, according to a survey of more than 3,000 employees.

The research, conducted in 2015 by Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles, revealed that 1 in 5 workers faces hostile conditions at work, including behaviors like sexual harassment and bullying. This type of abuse is disproportionately directed at public-facing workers who deal with customers and clients directly, researchers found. [Trying to improve your work environment? Here are four ways offices can create more positive experiences.]

Additionally, about 55% of workers say they face "unpleasant and potentially hazardous" conditions, which includes frequently inhaling dangerous particles like dust or smoke and handling chemical products. About half of the respondents also reported that their work spills over into their personal lives, either in the form of doing work in their free time or in unpredictable schedule changes.

"To us, it is kind of a very interesting and somewhat striking portrait of what people go through on a daily basis," Nicole Maestas, an adjunct economist at Rand Corp. and co-author of the study, told Business News Daily.

What is considered a hostile work environment?

In practicality, many things can make a working environment feel hostile. Too much pressure to perform at a certain level, unsafe conditions or coworkers that you don't get along with are a few examples. However, in legal terms, certain criteria have to be met for it to qualify as a hostile working environment.

Discrimination against a protected class creates a hostile work environment. The class could be gender, race, orientation or any other class protected from discrimination by law. The behavior must be ongoing or long lasting, and have a negative impact on their ability to perform their job duties.

The other qualification for a hostile work environment is disciplinary action or trying to get an employee to quit due to them doing something protected by law. Joining a Union, getting injured at work or reporting regulatory violations to the appropriate authority are examples.

The supervisor may cut the employee's hours, sexually harass, bully or threaten them. If the work environment becomes intimidating, offensive or hostile to “a reasonable person,” then it qualifies as a hostile work environment under the law.

Pressure, autonomy and support in the workplace

It isn't all doom and gloom, though: Researchers found that American workers have a great deal of autonomy in their work. About 80 percent of respondents said they are able to solve problems and formulate their own ideas on the job. And a majority said their bosses are supportive of them (58%) and that they have good friends at work (56 percent).

"A substantial proportion of workers is exposed to an adverse physical and social work environment and is subject to high pressure and hours variations that spill over into personal lives," the study's authors wrote. "At the same time, many workers say that they have latitude over how they do their jobs, and a majority feel supported by their coworkers and bosses."

The survey was updated in 2018. The most notable discoveries were that many older Americans were returning to the workforce. In fact, nearly half of all retirees surveyed say that they would return to work under the right conditions.

Older workers report more flexibility and feeling that their work is more meaningful. However, they do cite a desire for more supportive relationships within their workplace. Younger workers seem to feel more supported by their colleagues than older workers.

"My idea here is to ask, 'What role do working conditions play?' It's not just a matter of economic performance in U.S., but also the health and well-being of the American worker," Maestas said. "We're talking about recognizing that jobs can be really stressful for a lot of people and impact their physical well-being, as well as their emotional well-being. We work quite a bit, and we don't have a lot of control over when we work."

Taking workplace hostility seriously

Workplace hostility can be damaging, even if it doesn't meet the legal definition. When employees feel safe and valued, they will perform better. In fact, Forbes mentions that happy employees are 20% more productive than unhappy ones. This is a huge improvement.

Hostile work environments should be taken seriously from a moral, legal and business perspective. Employees are at the core of a business's success. When they feel they are in a positive work environment, everyone wins.

You can find more proof in Fortune 500's Best 100 Companies to Work For. Companies on the list experienced 14% growth between 1995-2005, compared to an average of 6%.

What can be done about hostile work environments?

Despite the positives, hostile work environments are still a common occurrence for large swaths of the workforce. And a majority feel, at the very least, uncomfortable. These findings bring with them an imperative to change how we see things in the workplace, said Joel Klein, a certified professional business coach and producer of BizTank.

"If people feel that their environment is hostile, whether they know it or not, their work is likely to suffer, and the success of the company is at jeopardy," Klein said. "The less this is spoken about, the more a hostile environment becomes a topic that is too normalized to be addressed, leaving people unhappy in their jobs constantly."

Fortunately, Klein said, there are ways for both employers and employees to address when hostility is bubbling under the surface. Resolving these issues before they grow beyond control or to a tipping point is essential to maintaining a functional work environment with happy and productive employees.

"Employers can take courses, speak to HR or seek counsel to help to alleviate the company's hostile culture," Klein said. "Employees, although difficult to do, should speak up to a human resource professional at the company or someone in upper management that they can trust. It's important that the suffering doesn't go unnoticed or you will just have resentful employees." 

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