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What to do about a Hostile Work Environment

What to do about a Hostile Work Environment
Pat Dickson - Tue Apr 03, 2012 @ 12:48PM
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What do you do if you are subject to a hostile work environment? For this discussion, let's assume only written or spoken words are involved and it is a first time occurrence. 

Someone said something to you that was mean, unwelcome, or made you uncomfortable. It may have been something said in front of a group of people or even in an email to you that either did or did not copy others. In most cases, you are angry or hurt.

The first thing to come to mind is going straight to the HR department, going to see your boss - assuming he is not a source of or contributor to the harassment, writing an angry email with a dozen people copied, going to see a labor attorney, or calling the department of labor. But, if you are not in danger and have not been physically touched, and because this is the first time, I have a little bit of unconventional advice:

If an email (or any other written document) is involved, send it to your personal email account and print it out/copy it and take it home with you and keep it there. Don't trust that the IT department is going to protect information which is potentially damaging to the company. We've all seen cases where companies do and will destroy documents, Enron to name one of them.

Then whether there is written evidence of what happened or not, write down/type up everything that happened, email it to your personal email account and  print it out and take it home with you. Be sure to include all the surrounding detail, who was there, what was said, and what happened thereafter. Going through the questions who, what, when, where, why, how as to all the details will help you remember and record as much as possible. 

Now do nothing for 24 hours. Why? Simply because you never really know if you've been harassed or are just mad, if your harasser didn't really mean what he said, it was a one time mistake, or otherwise the whole matter just isn't worth raising a fuss over.

A 24 hour cooling off period often allows one to simmer down and no longer see the provoking events in the same light as before. Seriously consider whether just going straight to the person who insulted you and privately letting him know what happened is unacceptable and can't happen again without severe consequence is a good solution. This is one possible avenue to making sure the harassment ends and allowing the culprit to save face. For all you know, you'll make a long term ally of your assailant, he'll never again insult you, and he might even be in a position to affect your next promotion.

Nevertheless, If after the 24 hours has passed you still feel you have been unacceptably harassed or subjected to a hostile work environment and facing your assailant is a bad idea, immediately find a lawyer that will give you a free/reasonably priced consultation and review what happened with them.

I don't recommend going to the HR department or even talking to coworkers about what happened for one good business reason. Too often HR departments and coworkers are not the allies you believe them to be. They might turn against you and make you the enemy.

Only go to the HR department if after consultation with an outside attorney, it is advised. In this day and age, with the mass layoffs and job instability being known as a rabble rouser can be the difference between being put on a layoff list or not. It may not be legal, but that is the way it happens. Maybe you would win in court if you could affort it, but time and time again I've heard it said to employees with pink slip fresh in hand,

"You weren't laid off for reasons connected to your grievances filed with the HR department. You were laid off because this is an employment at will state and the company is doing what it must to cut costs."

Sadly, sometimes it just makes economic sense not to start a fight because being right has too much downside.

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