When you hear a peer use the term, ‘Hostile Work Environment,’ your communication and management skills need to kick into high gear. As a departmental leader or an HR professional, prepare yourself with these four techniques for defusing a hostile work environment.
The term “Hostile Work Environment” can get thrown around loosely, but there is a legal definition and it’s important to know the difference.
To quote About.com: “A hostile work environment is created by a boss or co-worker whose actions, communication, or behavior makes doing your job impossible. This means that the behavior altered the terms, conditions, and/or reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment… and must be discriminatory in nature. (Discriminatory would be about age, religion, gender, or race.) The behavior must last over time and must be severe.”
Address the Behavior
If an employee comes to you and describes a situation they feel is creating a hostile work environment, first, find out if they have addressed this behavior directly with the proposed offender.
If they have, skip to Moderate and Mediate.
If they have not, read on: It is up to you to create a safe and neutral environment for the two parties to talk. But before this meeting happens, first gather your facts. Get the accuser’s side of the story. Be empathic and employ active listening skills without agreeing or disagreeing to their account of the proposed allegations. It’s important to stay neutral but ask clarifying questions to help uncover the facts.
Next, you will want to privately interview the proposed offender. Often, this person will have no idea their actions may have offended someone to the extent that it is a perceived as a hostile work environment. Remember, perception is one person’s unique view of the world. Once you have explained the allegations, give the offender the same courtesy of a neutral and safe interview. Show empathy, use active listening skills and ask clarifying questions.
Moderate and Hopefully, Mediate
Now that you have the facts from both sides, your role is to become the moderator and conduct a meeting between the two parties. The objective is to make each party aware of how certain behaviors are having a negative effect on the accuser. The desired outcome is to provide awareness of the situation. Frequently, this step alone will defuse a potentially hostile work environment.
Taking it to the Next Level
However, not all meetings end the way you were hoping for. If the employee continues to feel they are being singled out in a discriminatory nature (age, religion, gender or race) and they are documenting the severity and frequency of the behavior, it is time for you to escalate this situation to the next management level.
Depending on the size of your organization, this could be senior leadership or even the CEO. Once the two parties have been interviewed, and the unwanted behavior has been requested to stop, and it doesn’t stop – there could be legal consequences.
Final Outcome of Workplace Harassment
There are no good outcomes for a company that has been accused of a hostile work environment. They typical outcomes are:
- Employee leaves
- Employee gets terminated
- Employee starts legal actions
Hopefully, you will never have to deal with the extreme outcome of this type of situation. However, most managers in mid-to-large-size companies will likely deal with employees feeling they are not being treated fairly and will often relate that to a hostile work environment. Knowing the legal definition and the steps to take to diffuse the situation can help mitigate the worst outcome.
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