April, 1997 - Hostile Environment
from Supreme Court Rulings (June, 1998)
Definition - What is "Hostile Environment" anyway?
Workplace Prevention - Tips for Compliance (or, what to
do before your attorney says, "I warned you . . . .").
Violence Prevention - Taking the Punch out of Workplace
- Keep It
Simple - the lighter side
The US Supreme Court set down a clearer set of guidelines
about sexual harassment, bringing federal laws closer to
The New Rules (as reported in the Orange County
Register, June 27, 1998):
- Employers are responsible for harassment engaged in by
their supervisory employees
- When the harassment results in "a tangible employment
action, such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable
reassignment," the employer's liability is absolute
- When there has been no tangible action, an employer can
defend itself if it can prove two things: 1) That it has
taken "reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any
sexually harassing behavior." 2) That the employee
"unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or
corrective opportunities" provided.
Hostile Work Environment refers to harassment by
supervisors, managers, coworkers, agents of the
company/organization and outside vendors. Hostile Work
Environment consists of a condition where employee cannot do
their job without feeling harassed or threatened.
According to most legal definitions, Hostile Work
Environment refers to harassment or discrimination that is a
violation of a person's civil rights - based on gender, sexual
orientation, race, color, nationality, ancestry, ethnic origin,
religion, physical handicap/disability, medical condition,
physical appearance, marital status, veteran status, education.
Webster's definition of Hostile
- of or relating to an enemy
- marked especially by overt antagonism:
- not hospitable.
Webster's definition of Hostility:
- a hostile state, hostile action or overt acts of warfare
- Conflict, opposition, or resistance in thought or
Recent news reports quote research that people who witness
harassment have stress symptoms almost as severe as those who
are the target of harassment.
Consensual Behavior consists of voluntary, mutually
welcome relationships between coworkers at any level.
Consensual behavior is not regulated by laws nor do laws try
to interfere in the personal private lives of coworkers.
However, be aware, other employees may feel discriminated
against, harassed or work in a hostile environment if
denied equal opportunity due to a consensual relationship
of coworkers. (1)
Our Definition of Hostile Workplace Environments
A Hostile Workplace is one where people can not do
their best work or be their most productive due to conditions in
their workplace. That is, the workplace is hostile to their
natural humanity. Notice also the results of a hostile
workplace are hostility toward the company's productivity,
which directly impact profits in a negative way. People who are
unhappy, unhealthy or angry do not work hard.
Hostile workplace is the result of suppression of people's
natural ability to express themselves. It is the opposite of a
workplace that promotes creativity and vitality. Hostile
workplaces are deadly to productivity. They are unhealthy
- and potentially deadly - to the people who work in them.
Hostility consists of:
- verbal abuse against any person, for whatever reason
- angry interchanges between people over political or
- one-up-manship and excessive competition
- power plays and challenges issued over imagined threats
to a person's authority
- attempts to squash a person's ability to be creative and
do their work in a way that is most productive for the
- enforcement of ineffective or unreasonable rules for the
sole purpose of exerting power over others or to impede
According to Dr. Suzette Elgin, hostility can make you
sick or kill you! Dr. Elgin also says (3):
(1) Zero Tolerance: Sexual Harassment
Prevention, a training program, by Barbara Taylor, Michael
Anthony, Victor Thies © 1993
(2) Webster's Ninth New Collegiate
Dictionary © 1983
(3) Genderspeak: Men, Woman and the Gentle
Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. ©
- Limit Profanity
- Train, Train, Train
- No Racy or Pornographic Literature at Work
- Clean up the Humor
- Limit or Eliminate Touching
- Bond Other Than Through Sexual Innuendo, etc.
- Do Not Ignore the Issue of Workplace Romance
- Lead by Example
- Have a Strongly Enforced Sexual Harassment Policy
Profanity is used as either a lazy person's tool for profound
expression or as a shock device. If your workplace is riddled
with swearing, start a collection box where each person who
swears or is otherwise profane voluntarily puts in a dollar
towards some charitable cause. When the contribution dwindles
because there is less swearing, use the contribution box to work
on some other behavior, like being grumpy. Aristotle said that
to BE virtuous one need only practice virtue. PRACTICE!
People need to learn that there are many things they should
NEVER do or say at work - things that would be acceptable
in their private life. At a cocktail party or wedding, you can
walk away from an obnoxious guest. You can not do that at work
when the obnoxious person is your boss, coworker or the whole
Training teaches people to allow everyone on the team to
enjoy the right to a neutral environment. In turn the company is
more profitable and everyone is the better for it.
Racy or Pornographic Literature
This should go without saying. However, all too often,
employees bring or keep such materials at work or call it up on
the Internet. The workplace is no place for this material.
up the Humor
Dirty jokes are the cheapest laugh. Any comedian will tell
you that. If you really want to be funny, do it without sex or
profanity. Compare Jerry Seinfeld to Andrew Dice Clay and ask
yourself which type of workplace (Seinfeld or Clay) would your
people be more comfortable in.
Just because it is not disgusting or sexist doesn't mean that
it can't be funny.
or Eliminate Touching
This is a very difficult but important issue. In a recent
seminar which I gave on sexual harassment, this issue became
very focused on whether people could 'hug' at work. The
discussion turned to what people wanted to communicate by
hugging — support, congratulations, empathy, attraction, warmth
In work, it is this writer's opinion that the shorthand of
the 'hug' or 'touch' should be avoided.
If you have something to say, say it with words. The
message, most probably, will be clearer.
Many people do not want to be touched or hugged. It is not
their job to tell you that. In many ways, this issue is about
Other Than Through Sexual Innuendo, etc.
People seek to become a part of groups within groups. This
helps us feel special. We create little clubs to get close to
one another beyond a simple one-to-one relationship. One way
this is done is by being part of a group that teases each other
about sex and sexual issues. This is also used as an icebreaker.
A really bad icebreaker.
Think back twenty years to this oldie but not so goody, 'Hey,
you're cool, I really want to get high with you.' Same
difference, and just as bad.
Bonding can occur on the job or through group reading, group
mountain climbing, leadership seminars, or intramural bowling or
football or golf leagues instead of through sexual innuendo and
Doing this right builds team character and dignity. Doing
this wrong builds lawsuits.
Not Ignore the Issue of Workplace Romance
Romance sometimes happens at work. It can create a hostile
environment for coworkers not involved in the relationship, and
also between the romantically-involved employees in the event
that the romance ends (especially if it ends poorly).
Romances between managers and their direct reports can - in
some jurisdictions - create legal exposure for the employer. The
issue of workplace romances should be addressed and discussed,
Create policies and stick by them (i.e., a manager is not
allowed to be romantically involved with anyone that he or she
"The fish rots from the head" (1988 Dukakis/Bush presidential
Whatever the goal, if top management acts or believes
contrary to the desired action or attitude — the goal is
destined for failure.
You can not create a productive and fun work environment
where the president is onsite and forces busy work upon his
staff and is cruel to boot.
Likewise, you can not create a workplace striving to be free
of sexual harassment where the top managers are insensitive
(pronounced offensive) OAFs.
If you are an OAF, de-OAF yourself - before a court or
administrative agency decides to help you in the process.
a Strongly Enforced Sexual Harassment Policy
First, adopt the policy and make it part of the culture of
Second, live by it - not because it is the law, but because
it is the right thing to do.
With this attitude - as opposed to one of begrudging
compliance - your workplace, your company's productivity and the
value of your company will be enhanced.
Copyright © 1997 Richard K. Berger (contact
[at] berkent.com). RickyBerger is the founder of
Office, which concentrates its practice in representing
emerging businesses and employees with their job-related and pre
and post-employment needs. Prior to establishing Berger Law
Office, Ricky was associated with Gaston & Snow and was a
founding partner of Robinson & Berger. Ricky writes extensively
on employment law and business management issues, and is widely
published in hard copy and on the World Wide Web including with
his Primer on the ADA published by Court TV. Ricky conducts
training and lectures on employment law and business management
issues as part of his mission to help create productive,
efficient, profitable, healthful, safe, and fun work
environments. Disclaimer: The above article should not be
considered or relied upon as legal or other advice in any manner
(Article used with permission of the
author. Thanks, Ricky!)
- Have a Written Policy Against Workplace Violence
- Identify Security Hazards in Your Workplace
- Ensure Employee Compliance with Safety and Security
- Investigate All Reported Threats of Violence or
- Develop Plans for Dealing with Violence if it Occurs
the Punch out of Workplace Violence
The Division of Occupational Health and Safety in
California's Department of Industrial Relations points to
surveys which estimate that nationally between 670,000 and 2
million employees have been attacked in the workplace. Moreover,
6.6 million have been threatened and 16 million have been
harassed. Those are impressive numbers, even if they are
Here are some more. The Census for Fatal Occupational Injury
Statistics showed that in 1993 there were 1004 homicides in the
workplace. The greatest number of violent attacks came from
customers (44%), strangers accounted for 24% of attacks,
co-workers caused 20%, bosses 7%, and finally former employees
3%. It seems our generally held perception of former employees
as the greatest risk may not be accurate. The Centers for
Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia has classified workplace
violence as a national disease epidemic.
Some states, including California, are
holding employers responsible for preventing violence in their
Under California law, all employers must have a written
safety plan called an Injury and Illness Prevention Program.
In addition to addressing fire safety, hazardous materials
handling procedures, and earthquake preparedness, these written
plans must also address the subject of workplace violence
prevention. Employer penalties can be severe. Willful violations
now bring a citation worth a minimum of $25,000. Willful
violations which result in death or serious physical harm to an
employee can result in fines as great as $70,000. Then, too,
there is the state law which holds individual managers
criminally liable if they know of a workplace hazard with the
potential of serious injury, do nothing to correct it, and
someone is actually seriously hurt or killed. That will clear
your calendar for a few years while you sit behind bars.
Let's face it. It's not just the U.S. Postal Service which is
having problems involving workplace violence. They just seem to
garner the largest headlines. And, remember, it is customers not
employees who cause the greatest number of workplace problems.
So, what can employers do? Glad you asked. Here are some
practical suggestions to help you keep your workplace as safe as
you want it to be for yourself, your loved ones and your
Actions for Prevention
1: Have a Written Policy Against Workplace Violence
- Be sure your policy is written and that all employees
receive a copy.
- If you work in a state that does not require employers
to have a written safety plan, consider creating an outline
of actions to be taken under different emergency conditions:
fire, earthquake, violence, medical emergency, etc.
- Have emergency telephone numbers printed on a list,
laminated in plastic and placed next to every telephone, and
keep those numbers updated.
- At last count, twenty-seven states allow citizens to
legally carry concealed firearms. None of those states, as
far as we know, prevent an employer from controlling
people's behavior while at work. Therefore, your safety
policy should contain a prohibition against bringing
firearms or other weapons into the workplace. In thirty
years I have never come across a situation which would
warrant an employee having a weapon in the workplace. They
can leave firearms in their vehicles until they leave work.
Or better yet, leave them at home. Can you imagine having a
fully armed staff wandering around? At best, it invites
- Your policy should indicate that you have a zero
tolerance for workplace violence of any kind. It should also
be clear that any employee participating in any form of
workplace violence will be subject to discipline, up to and
including dismissal. There is usually no need to use
progressive discipline with something like workplace
2: Identify Security Hazards in Your Workplace
- Develop your own checklist for potential security
hazards in your workplace. Or, ask your safety consultant,
workers' compensation insurance carrier or employment
attorney if they have something already developed which you
- Make an inspection of security hazards at least once
every calendar quarter.
- Keep a record of your inspections, including what you
discovered as hazards and what actions you have taken to
correct the identified problems.
- Taxi cab drivers and convenience store clerks are in the
highest risk group for workplace violence. What can be done
to lessen that risk? Plastic barriers between passenger and
driver compartments in cabs, perhaps. Security video systems
and alarm systems may help, as could improved lighting
inside and outside the facility.
- Law enforcement officials, hospital workers (especially
emergency room workers), sales personnel, prison guards and
social service workers all fall into the next lower risk
level. What can be done to protect them while they are doing
their jobs? Naturally, it depends on the specific analysis
you do for your workplace which will give you the answer to
such a question. However, you might already recognize that
personal protective equipment could play a role for law
enforcement officials, hospital workers and prison guards.
Sad as it is, even some social service workers today are
wearing bullet-proof vests. If there is a product or device
which can help prevent personal injury, you should consider
- In the typical office environment, we are seeing more
employers turning to restricted workplace access as a means
of offering improved security for their workers. Door locks,
electronically coded entry systems, reception areas behind
plastic or glass screens are other examples of physical
changes some employers have made.
3: Ensure Employee Compliance With Safety and Security Policies
- Once your safety policy has been written and approved,
managers should review it with every employee. This can be
done in groups or individually.
- The review should not consist of the manager mailing a
copy of the policy to each employee and directing them to
read it. This review should involve face-to-face
conversation about specific risks in your workplace, your
procedures for handling emergencies, and an opportunity for
employees to voice any concerns they may have.
- Discuss your workplace security inspection and any
action being taken to correct deficiencies you discovered.
- All employees should be told that the employer takes
workplace violence very seriously and policy violations will
result in discipline, perhaps dismissal.
- Finally, be sure all employees follow the policy. This
involves normal day-to-day observation and monitoring which
good managers do anyway.
- Encourage those who do things correctly. Discipline
those who do not by using coaching, warnings, suspension or
- Tell employees what has been discovered during the
security audit or inspection process.
- And, tell employees what will be or has been done to
address problems that your audit uncovered.
- Train employees in properly using any new security
devices, systems or procedures. Invite questions and
- Most importantly, perhaps, should be the employer's
encouragement of workers to talk about any threats of
violence they receive. As the employer, you know that upset
in other parts of people's lives can sometimes spill over
into the work environment. You don't want that to happen if
you can prevent it. But to prevent it, you must know about
it. Employees have to tell you if they are experiencing
problems of that nature.
- Your encouragement will go a
long way toward that goal of employee openness.
4: Investigate All Reported Threats of Violence or Harassment
- Instruct employees to report any threats of violence
they may receive at work.
- Then, anytime an employee reports receiving a threat of
violence or harassment, you as the employer should conduct
an investigation of that incident. No longer is it
permissible to dismiss such occurrences as we might have in
- If you follow this suggestion, managers will spend some
of their time on these investigations. They will also spend
some of their time preparing documentation associated with
the investigation. That is time they would rather be
spending on their production responsibilities in many cases.
- Unfortunately, the job of management has shifted in
recent years. It now involves many activities which were
uncommon or unheard of years ago. And, it often requires
managers to work longer hours to get everything done. That,
as they say, comes with the territory.
- Complaint investigations should be
given a high priority by every manager.
- Look at it this way. If you receive a report of a threat
of violence, delay your investigation because of other
pressing matters, then discover after violence has actually
taken place that there were some things you could have done
to prevent it, how would you feel? Give such reports the
attention they deserve. Otherwise, you may be the one in the
line of fire.
5: Develop Plans for Dealing With Violence If It Occurs
No employer can afford to take a
cavalier attitude toward the subject of workplace violence. The
stakes are too high.
Every employer should have a plan in place for dealing with
violent incidents should they occur. That is no different from
having a plan for dealing with fire should it occur.
Consider in your plan such questions as:
- What emergency procedures should be followed?
- After the emergency has been handled, who should be
- What will you do about your other employees for the
balance of the workday and the day after?
- If employees are sent home, will they be paid for their
- Who will deal with the news media?
- What can be done to provide emotional relief, counseling
or support to co-workers?
- Who should be contacted to provide such employee
- What will the company tell customers and others about
- Are there special messages to be placed on an
announcement system or telephone voice mail?
- How will payments for emergency services be handled?
- Who must approve them?
It appears that we all generally shy away from thinking about
the tragedies which might come into our lives.
No one likes to suffer either emotionally or physically.
Yet, proper crisis management planning can save both your
business as well as further injury to employees and third
If you don't know how to go about developing such a plan, ask
for help from your human resources or safety consultant.
Whatever you do, think ahead and
involve others in that process.
Violence in the workplace is a subject we would rather avoid
considering. It is very easy to delay or dismiss such
consideration with the rationalization that "It couldn't happen
Today, employers are being held responsible and accountable
for providing safe workplaces for their workers. Those who do
not are discovering unpleasant penalties including large fines
and even prison sentences.
The biggest losers are those who find themselves innocent
victims of violence that could have been prevented if only
someone had taken the time to think through the possibilities.
As the leader of your organization,
what will YOU do about workplace violence?
© 1997 William H. Truesdell. William H. Truesdell is
president of The Management Advantage, Inc., a human resources
consulting firm in Walnut Creek, California, which specializes
in policy development and issues of Equal Employment Opportunity
and affirmative action. He can be reached on 510-671-0404 or
through e-mail tmainc [at] management-advantage.com.
web site has additional
information about current human resource management subjects in
its free newsletters.
(Article used with permission of the
author. Thanks, William!)
(a Talking Cowboy Blues Song - to the music of
any good western song)
Well, I woke up this morning to a meeting in my head.
My ego had formed a terrorist group and I knew what lay ahead.
There'd be death threats on my confidence and extortions
of my heart,
And I'd have to remain in control so as not to fall apart.
So, I called my New Age girlfriend, who'd self-helped
herself for years,
And I asked her how to overcome all my unrest and inner fears.
She said that force would drive it deeper . . . I needed
to love my fear away.
But, she sounded so together, that I was ashamed of being
So, I called my local talk show radio therapist of the
She told me to write myself little love notes and paste 'em up
She said it was not good to be ashamed, I should get
therapy or meditate,
And right then I realized that I felt guilty that I was ashamed
of being afraid.
She said, "Thank you for share," and put me on hold.
I got right off the line - I knew she was trying to trace the
So, I said to myself, "I know I'm in there," and walked
over to the mirror to see.
"If I don't come out with my hands up," I said, "I'm coming in
I know my inner child's enraged, but all my outer man can
Is that I'm angry that I feel guilty that I'm ashamed of being
Right about then, my committee kicked in,
And there I am on the streets of Marin County, California,
The supposed conscious evolution center of the known
Not being totally present - like as if I was half-way between
reality and Mt. Talampais,I could've gotten busted!
So, I ran home, turned off the phone and changed the
"Hi! It's me . . . if I should return while I'm gone, please
detain me until I get back!"
So, I called this twelve-step friend of mine who I thought
might maybe know
Just why I felt so crazed these days like a psycho-desperado.
He took me to his support group and I shared about my
They said everyone's addicted to anger, it's the rage in this
day and age.
I said, "You mean I'm addicted
to being angry for feeling guilty that I'm ashamed of being
He says, "Yup!"
I said, "What happened to 'Keep it Simple'?"
He says, "Easy does it."
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot
By Chuck Pyle, with modifications by Noel
November 15, 2016