Understanding the legal guidelines that constitute a hostile work environment

Work can be hard. There will often be situations where you don’t get along with co-workers or that you have to deal with conflict. This can result in a tense and stressful environment. But is it hostile? It can be hard to determine the difference between a negative and a hostile work environment. However, unlike an unpleasant or negative workplace, there are legal requirements that constitute a hostile work environment. This article will explain everything you need to know about workplace hostility.

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Understanding the difference between negativity and hostility

A common misconception is that a generally unpleasant work environment is also hostile. Things such as a rude boss, a lack of reward or recognition or a disrespectful co-worker are all strenuous to deal with, but none of those actions are illegal.

It becomes a hostile work environment when enduring the conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or when the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create a situation that would seem intimidating, hostile, or abusive to reasonable people.

In other words, to meet the requirements of a hostile work environment, the behaviour must be:

  • Pervasive, severe, and persistent
  • Disruptive to the victim’s work
  • Something the employer knew about and did not address adequately enough to make stop

Legal Requirements for a Hostile Environment

What Qualifies as Legally Hostile?

A hostile work environment is created when either management or a fellow employee behaves in such a way that another employee (most often yourself) finds very difficult or impossible to work in. A hostile work environment can often be a violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code and/or the Occupational Health and Safety Act.


Examples of hostility in the workplace include:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Insults, slurs and name-calling
  • Touching, physical assaults, and threats
  • Intimidation, ridicule, and mockery
  • Use of sexual language
  • Sexually suggestive objects or pictures
  • Interference with work performance

Questions to Ask to Determine if your Work Environment is Legally Hostile

It can be difficult to discern whether your work environment meets the qualifications of a hostile work environment.

Ask yourself these questions as a starting point:

  • Were the incidents unwelcome?
  • Did the incidents repeatedly occur over a period of time?
  • Was the incident both objectively and subjectively hostile?
  • Were you insulted or degraded based on a discriminatory ground (e.g. race, religion, sex, or disability) in Ontario’s Human Rights Code?
  • Were you bullied, humiliated or named called?
  • Were you threatened or intimidated?

If you have answered “yes” to any of the following questions, you may be the victim of a hostile work environment. If you answered “no,” remember that the above list is not an exhaustive list. Just because your situation does not appear on this list doesn’t mean you haven’t been a victim of a hostile workplace.

How to deal with a hostile work environment

A workplace needs to be ready and well-equipped to deal with workplace hostility. In fact, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS), employers with five or more employees are required to have a policy in place that deals with workplace violence and harassment. Employers should have a written policy that is accessible to the employees, as well as training to discuss the implementation of the policy. The policy should include ways to report workplace harassment, as well as how complaints will be dealt with.

Read More: Promoting Psychological Safety in the Workplace

In many cases, the offending employee doesn’t know that their behaviour has offended the victim. Issues like these are relatively simple to resolve. Most of the time, these situations can be fixed with a calm, face-to-face conversation involving a superior or an internal complaint system.

Call a mediator or investigator

If the hostility continues, bringing in an objective third party is a good option. You can use mediation at any point during a conflict, as long as all of those involved agree to do so. Generally, mediation is best used when an incident first arises and is reported. As for investigation, a properly conducted workplace investigation can help to protect employers from potential liability and ensure that all parties involved are heard in an efficient, neutral, and unbiased manner. Global Mindful Solutions offers a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to workplace resolution. Whether it be investigation or mediation, we handle all sensitive situations with care, thoughtfulness, and discretion.

The Takeaway

Everyone has bad days at work. However, no one deserves to work in a hostile environment. If you feel you are the victim of workplace hostility, be sure to follow the steps outlined in this article. Most importantly, talk to your supervisor or someone you trust who can help you come up with a safe and effective course of action. In all reported cases of workplace hostility, it’s important that employees should be given the opportunity to report any issues they’re having with other colleagues, and they should feel confident that their complaint will be taken seriously.

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