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How to Survive in a Hostile Working Environment

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Bullying, sabotage and harassment can make the workday miserable for anyone, but the law offers protection from this behavior only when it constitutes illegal discrimination. To survive a hostile working environment, take steps to regain control over your interactions with co-workers.

A Hostile Environment

Workplace bullying and harassment can take many different forms. In its most obvious form, a co-worker or supervisor may yell at you, verbally abuse you, physically intimidate you, sexually harass you or make inappropriate jokes at your expense. More subtle forms of bullying include a co-worker criticizing your work constantly without offering constructive feedback, sabotaging you by not sharing important information, taking credit for your work or spreading harmful gossip about you.

It is illegal for your employer to tolerate harassment on the basis of gender, race, skin color, religious affiliation, age, country of origin, genetic data or disability. If you believe your workplace is a hostile environment because of illegal discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advises you to confront whoever is harassing you and make it clear that you don't accept the behavior. If that isn't enough to solve the problem, report the illegal harassment to management or your company's human resources department. If the company doesn't resolve the issue, file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the offensive incident.

Standing Up for Yourself

You should document every interaction with a workplace harasser or bully, notes industrial psychologist Bernardo Tirado in a Psychology Today article, whether the behavior qualifies as illegal discrimination or not. If you take notes of every meeting or conversation, you'll be in a much better position to document illegal behavior or support your version of events after the fact.

You should also let the bully know that you are aware of the behavior and that you don't intend to put up with it. With more obvious forms of bullying, this is fairly straightforward. For instance, if you don't like being referred to by an insulting nickname, say so clearly and unambiguously. Document the bully's behavior and report it to management if it continues.

With more subtle forms of bullying, the person may deny the behavior. For example, if a co-worker sabotages you by not passing along an important memo, he may try to claim he honestly forgot. In this situation, Tirado advises confronting your co-worker directly but calmly, using your documentation to prove a pattern of behavior. Holding a bully accountable is the best way to stop the behavior, according to a paper on toxic workplaces by Kirk Lawrence, program director at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

You can defuse some behavior by refusing to engage with it. Lawrence explains that the best way to respond to hostile criticism is to say, "Thank you for your opinion" and then immediately walk out of the conversation. If a co-worker is getting emotionally agitated, Tirado advises asking him if he needs a moment to calm down. This allows you to confront the behavior while regaining your own power in the conversation.

Standing Together

Workplace bullying flourishes when co-workers don't support each other. If you stand up for your co-workers, you can help create an environment where they will also stand up for you. Lawrence provides several suggestions for creating a workplace where bullies cannot flourish.

  • If a co-worker always takes credit for work she didn't do, make a point of giving credit to the right person first.
  • If someone always talks about other employees behind their backs, don't welcome or support the behavior by nodding or using body language that suggests you agree.
  • If an employee is being targeted for harassment by others, stand up for her and report the behavior.

Further Steps

Some workplaces are too toxic for you to change them on your own. If you can't get anywhere by standing up for yourself and your co-workers, psychotherapist and business consultant Linnda Durré suggests officially requesting a transfer.

If you think your situation constitutes illegal discrimination, Durré advises asking your lawyer to write a letter to your supervisor, your human resources department and your company's legal department. If that isn't enough to get results, follow up with legal action.

While you're taking all these steps, Durré also recommends networking and updating your resume so you can find a better job. If you can't fix the situation in your workplace, the only solution may be to leave.