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spike bullet April, 1997 - Hostile Environment

Update from Supreme Court Rulings (June, 1998)
Definition - What is "Hostile Environment" anyway?
Hostile Workplace Prevention - Tips for Compliance (or, what to do before your attorney says, "I warned you . . . .").
Violence Prevention - Taking the Punch out of Workplace Violence
Keep It Simple - the lighter side
Internet Resources

spike bulletUpdate from Supreme Court Rulings - June, 1998:

The US Supreme Court set down a clearer set of guidelines about sexual harassment, bringing federal laws closer to California laws.

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.

spike bullet Hostile Workplace/Hostile Work Environment - What is it?

spike bullet Definitions:

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. (1)

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 (2):

  1. of or relating to an enemy
  2. marked especially by overt antagonism: UNFRIENDLY
  3. not hospitable.

Webster's definition of Hostility:

  1. a hostile state, hostile action or overt acts of warfare
  2. Conflict, opposition, or resistance in thought or principle.

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)

spike bullet 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 territorial boundaries
  • 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 individual
  • enforcement of ineffective or unreasonable rules for the sole purpose of exerting power over others or to impede progress.

According to Dr. Suzette Elgin, hostility can make you sick or kill you! Dr. Elgin also says (3):

  • Hostile language can kill you as surely as hostile driving can . . . Hostile language hurts and frustrates and confuses people . . . the damage takes place slowly, over time, and the wouldn't aren't readily visible. . . .
  • Exposure to chronic verbal abuse doesn't leave you with obvious cuts and bruises, but is a guaranteed recipe for ulcers, migraine headaches, high blood pressure, allergy attacks; accidents in the home and in the workplace and on the highway, colds, rashes, rashes, depression and every sort of misery.
  • Angry, cynical people are five times as likely to die under 50 as people who are calm and trusting (New York Times, January 17, 1989)
  • Scientists have long noted an association between social relationships and health. More socially isolated or less socially integrated people are less healthy, psychologically and physically, and more likely to die. Science, June 19, 1988)
  • These effects don't show up on the short term, which is why it took so long to find out what was really happening. In the short term, it often looks as if the meanest, angriest, least-liked people are the ones getting the benefits. It took today's computers, which can find the patterns in the data from hundreds of thousands of health histories extending over lifetimes, to show us what the real facts are. They're not the facts you see on television.
  • People who are too angry to listen cannot be educated.
  • Research has shown that attentive listening is actually good for your health. When you are really listening, your blood pressure goes down, your heartbeat moderates and your body shows the healthful changes associated with relaxation.
  • When your language behavior makes other people enjoy being around you and look forward to talking with you, when you clean up your language environment so that verbal violence isn't a routine part of your life, you do more for your health and well-being than you could ever accomplish in any other way.
  • If for no other reason, and no matter what your gender, that's why you should bother.
  • [emphasis added]


    (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. � 1993

    spike bullet Sexual Harassment � Tips for Compliance:

    1. Limit Profanity
    2. Train, Train, Train
    3. No Racy or Pornographic Literature at Work
    4. Clean up the Humor
    5. Limit or Eliminate Touching
    6. Bond Other Than Through Sexual Innuendo, etc.
    7. Do Not Ignore the Issue of Workplace Romance
    8. Lead by Example
    9. Have a Strongly Enforced Sexual Harassment Policy

    spike bulletLimit Profanity

    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!

    spike bulletTrain, Train, Train

    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 company.

    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.

    spike bulletNo 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. PERIOD!

    spike bulletClean 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.

    spike bulletLimit 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 etc.

    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 power.

    spike bulletBond 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 teasing.

    Doing this right builds team character and dignity. Doing this wrong builds lawsuits.

    spike bulletDo 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, not ignored.

    Create policies and stick by them (i.e., a manager is not allowed to be romantically involved with anyone that he or she supervises).

    spike bulletLead by Example

    "The fish rots from the head" (1988 Dukakis/Bush presidential race).

    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.

    spike bulletHave a Strongly Enforced Sexual Harassment Policy

    First, adopt the policy and make it part of the culture of the company.

    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] RickyBerger is the founder of Berger Law 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 whatsoever.

    (Article used with permission of the author. Thanks, Ricky!)

    spike bulletWorkplace Violence - Tips for Prevention

    1. Have a Written Policy Against Workplace Violence
    2. Identify Security Hazards in Your Workplace
    3. Ensure Employee Compliance with Safety and Security Policies
    4. Investigate All Reported Threats of Violence or Harassment
    5. Develop Plans for Dealing with Violence if it Occurs

    spike bulletTaking 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 estimates.

    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 workplaces.

    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 employees.

    spike bulletEmployer Actions for Prevention

    spike bulletStep 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 trouble.
    • 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 violence.

    spike bulletStep 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 can use.
    • 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 using it.
    • 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.

    spike bulletStep 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 dismissal.
    • 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 suggestions.
    • 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.

    spike bulletStep 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 the past.
    • 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.

    spike bulletStep 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:

    1. What emergency procedures should be followed?
    2. After the emergency has been handled, who should be notified?
    3. What will you do about your other employees for the balance of the workday and the day after?
    4. If employees are sent home, will they be paid for their non-worked time?
    5. Who will deal with the news media?
    6. What can be done to provide emotional relief, counseling or support to co-workers?
    7. Who should be contacted to provide such employee assistance?
    8. What will the company tell customers and others about the incident?
    9. Are there special messages to be placed on an announcement system or telephone voice mail?
    10. How will payments for emergency services be handled?
    11. 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 parties.

    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 here."

    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]

    The company's web site has additional information about current human resource management subjects in its free newsletters.

    (Article used with permission of the author. Thanks, William!)

    Keep It Simple country singer

    (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 afraid.

    So, I called my local talk show radio therapist of the air.
    She told me to write myself little love notes and paste 'em up everywhere.

    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 call.

    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 after me."

    I know my inner child's enraged, but all my outer man can say
    Is that I'm angry that I feel guilty that I'm ashamed of being afraid.

    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 universe.
    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 machine.
    "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 rage.
    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 afraid?"

    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 change.

    By Chuck Pyle, with modifications by Noel McInnes

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