Though not everyone actively enjoys going to work, the idea of walking into your office shouldn't send you into a state of panic or dread. But that's how a disturbing number of Americans feel when they think about going to work. In fact, 20% of U.S. employees claim they work in a hostile environment.

What constitutes a hostile workplace? It can really run the gamut from having an awful boss to disrespectful coworkers to a company culture that lends itself to abusive behavior. And while larger companies are more likely to have policies and procedures in place to protect employees from others' inappropriate behavior, if you work for a small company without an actual human resources department, you may be out of luck.

Man hovering over a woman covering her face with a piece of paper


Take it from me, because I've been there. Back in the day, I worked for a small hedge fund, and to call that atmosphere hostile would actually be an understatement. Not only was foul language accepted, it was practically the norm. People would insult each other left and right, sometimes for fun, and often out of greed and frustration. Fist fights would break out on the trading floor as my money-hungry colleagues battled for the largest possible commissions. And one trader, who didn't cope well with disappointment, was known for his tendency to hurl his phone across the desk whenever he didn't get his way.

Thankfully, I never had to endure physical abuse at that job, but I faced my share of verbal abuse. The traders I worked with would insult me and comment on my appearance, and though my boss wasn't quite as bad, one of his partners made a habit of talking down to me in what I can only assume was an attempt to make me feel as small as possible. Sometimes it worked; other times I shrugged it off. Eventually, I reached a point where I'd just plain had enough, and so I resigned.

Of course, I didn't have an HR department to turn to or a company manual to accuse anyone of breaching. But if you work for a larger company with policies against abuse, you should know that you don't have to take it lying down.

You deserve better

If you work in an environment that's overwhelmingly hostile, there are several ways to address the problem -- if your company is large enough to offer some form of protection. If not (say, it's just you and four other people in a room), then I hate to break it to you, but your best bet may be to pick yourself up and leave. Yes, you could try filing a legal complaint, but that could get costly and complicated. On the other hand, if your company has policies in place, and your goal is to make your present job more tolerable so that you don't have to leave it, you do have some options.

First, identify the source of the hostility you're facing. It is coming from a specific individual or select group of people? If that's the case, then a sit-down with the offending parties might nip the situation in the bud. Get those folks in a room, tell them, as politely but firmly as possible, that you've had enough of their behavior, and present some solutions that might enable you all to work better together going forward. For example, if you're constantly getting attitude from your tech team because you're responsible for reporting bugs in your content management system, you might ask if they'd like to propose a better method of logging complaints so that they get less annoyed and you don't have to bear the brunt of their frustration.

If that doesn't work, or if you're dealing with a larger-scale problem, then your next step is to start logging incidents of inappropriate or hostile behavior, and report them to HR once a clear pattern has been established. Keep a list of each event that occurs, including the date, time, and key players involved. Also, be sure to jot down the names of witnesses who might be willing to back up your claims. Additionally, retain an electronic copy of that record so that it's available to you at all times. You never know when a coworker or boss might try messing with your computer to clear his or her name, so you need a backup.

Once you've gathered your data, have the conversation with HR and make your goals clear from the start. If you're looking to be moved to another team because your manager treats you poorly, say so. On the other hand, if you wish to stay on your team but have your boss treat you more respectfully, make that point clear. Your HR partner will have an easier time helping you if you make your intentions known.

Finally, get that HR person to commit to a point of action before concluding your conversation. To have someone tell you that he or she will "look into it" isn't enough. Rather, ask what specific steps will be taken now that you've made your case.

In many scenarios, your HR department will successfully intervene and nip the problem in the bud or at least help make the situation more tolerable. But if HR does nothing, you may need to be prepared to take legal action or move on. No matter what you do, don't just resign yourself to a hostile work atmosphere day in, day out -- because you really do deserve better.

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