A hostile work environment is created when an employer or colleague behaves in such a way that it is difficult or impossible for an employee to continue working. A hostile work environment is often considered a form of harassment.
Below are five actions that can accidentally, or on purpose, make for a hostile work environment, and how to resolve them:
- Verbal abuse or physical threats against an employee’s well-being. It goes without saying that yelling, swearing, or making verbal threats of physical harm towards an employee will create a hostile work environment. Violence itself is not necessary, the fear of harm may be enough.
- Insulting or degrading comments based on the personal characteristics set out in the Ontario Human Rights Code. Comments or actions that are unwelcome and based on personal traits like race, age, gender, religion or family status, to name a few, will create a hostile work environment.
- Unwelcome sexual remarks or contact, leering, unwelcome requests for dates, displays of sexually offensive pictures, or the spreading of sexual rumours. In addition to creating a hostile work environment, such behavior may also result in a claim of sexual harassment.
- Conduct that intimidates, humiliates or demeans an employee. Insults, name calling, or the spreading of rumours can amount to workplace bullying, and a hostile work environment.
- Targeting a particular employee by providing them with excessive and unjustified criticism, impossible goals and deadlines, or sabotaging the employee’s work. Such behavior is conducted in bad faith and is another form of bullying.
It is the employer’s responsibility to address and prevent conduct that has created a hostile work environment. An employee faced with a hostile work environment should report any harassing behavior to a superior. Once the employer is made aware of the allegations of harassment, there is an obligation on the employer to investigate and resolve the situation.
Employers are required to prevent hostile work environments from developing. Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers with five or more employees are required to prepare a workplace policy about workplace violence and harassment. Employers must also develop and maintain a written program to implement the policy, which must include measures and procedures as to how workers are to report workplace harassment, as well as setting out how incidents or complaints will be investigated and dealt with.
Finally, if an employee is subjected to behavior that is in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the employer may be faced with a human rights claim if they allow the hostile work environment to continue or develop. Employers should take allegations of a hostile work environments seriously, and also be pro-active in fostering a safe and healthy work environment.
Author: Whitney Manfro, Whitten & Lublin