Any workplace that requires much of its employees can be stressful – much more so if the employers allow a hostile working environment to operate. A workplace that is intimidating and offensive to a particular worker can create fear and lessen productivity. The negative effects can be even greater if the worker is surrounded by co-workers who are on the lookout for anyone easy to harass.
While the federal law does not penalize simple annoyances like offhand remarks or teasing, it becomes a different matter altogether once the teasing becomes regular, persistent and more serious. In this case, this becomes workplace harassment (related to discrimination) that is punishable by law under the Civil Rights Act.
Among the most common cases of harassment resulting in a hostile working environment are offhand comments related to:
- Sex and Gender (women and the third sex)
- Nationality (Asians and other foreign nationals are most often the object of office jokes)
- Disability of a person
Most often than not, supervisors who have a bias against a certain group act out their biases by demoting a worker, criticizing his work or even terminating him without due cause. Sometimes, co-workers who feel superior to a certain worker tend to make discriminatory remarks or jokes that can be classified as outright harassment.
There is also a form of harassment that paves the way for negative sexual expression in the office which may include leering, heckling or ogling, offhand comments about the clothing of a person, uncalled for remarks about the body parts or even physical advances towards a person. A co-worker who is fond of making sexual innuendoes even if they are merely made as a joke can also create a hostile working environment.
An employee who may have a problem walking straight can become the butt of jokes especially among work bullies who pick on co-employees who have some physical disabilities. Imitating the walk of a polio victim in the office or aping the intonation of an Asian co-worker can cause a hostile working environment and can result in a grievance or even the filing of a workplace harassment case later on.
While those in the supervisory or managerial positions are usually the defendants of cases citing discrimination in the workplace (especially when the act is characterized by firing, diminution of benefits or reassignment) co-workers or even non-employees can be made defendants or co-defendants also, depending on the circumstances. Most often, laws penalizing sexual harassment cases consider the authority (moral or otherwise) of the harasser as well as the influence he can wield on the worker.
A hostile working environment can demoralize workers and this can lead to a reduction in their productivity. To avoid this, employers should make sure that the office has a solid anti-harassment policy that will address workplace bullying, sexual harassment and even work discrimination. An arbitration process should also be properly established so that the victims know what to do and where to go.