Red Flags at Work: Dealing With a Hostile Work Environment

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

What actually creates a hostile work environment? We know this can be confusing – in fact, a common question we hear often is, “Do I just hate my job, or is this actually unhealthy?”

The best way for us to describe whether or not you work in a hostile work environment is to separate the content of your job from the process of your job. If you don’t like the content of your job (looking over contracts, cold-calling, scheduling, etc.) but they fall under appropriate, normal, everyday tasks – then typically that doesn’t fall under being a hostile work environment. Instead, that’s usually when it’s time for you to find a job that better suits your interests. 

It’s the process of your job that’s usually an indicator you’re in a hostile work environment. Think of “process” as everything that isn’t the nuts and bolts of your job. It’s the communication strategies, interpersonal interactions, general company culture, or expectations or norms that are frequent throughout departments.

Examples of a Hostile Work Environment

Your Boss is a Bully

Bullies don’t exist solely on playgrounds. Plenty of them grow up to have successful careers – and some of you unfortunate ones end up having to work for them. Bullying in the workplace can sometimes be hard to spot – especially when your boss is especially skilled at hiding their toxic behavior.

A few common bullying tactics are giving the silent treatment as disapproval, harping on small mistakes (even long after the mistake was made), using threats as retaliation or punishment, putting others down in front of a team, and purposely blocking others from forward momentum in the company.

Working for a bully is in a word – awful – (BEEN THERE!), but hopefully there are ways out of it. Calling bullies out can sometimes work like a charm. Many bullies have exceptionally low self-esteem, and any flex of strength can scare them away easily. However, if your boss has gotten used to their position of power, maneuvering around them can be tricky.

If your company culture does not celebrate immature work behavior, talk to HR. In a perfect world, Human Resources acts as a place of support for employees. HR can help you ask for a transfer or work with your boss to smooth over the rough patches of the relationship.

But, if HR and other departments SUPPORT their hostile behavior, it’s best to look for new place of employment that treats their employees with respect.

Your CoWorkers are Cliquey

I thought we left cliques way back in the hallways in high school, but apparently I was wrong.

If you work at a place where coworkers are exceptionally cliquey, it can be difficult to feel mentally and emotionally safe at work. While not all cliques are intentional, they can still be used to create blockades and edge others out. It’s best to figure out the root of the clique, first. Do they all simply get along and naturally gravity towards each other? Are they using company as a means to protect themselves from a bully in the workplace? Have they found that being social at work can help their career? Were they burned in the past by other coworkers?

While it’s easy to write people off as being mean for the sake of being mean – some cliques are a defense mechanism for other situations you may not know about. Without diminishing your feeling of exclusion – try to reframe any cliquey behavior as an invitation to learn more about the dynamics at play. The more you know about the origin of the clique and how it began, the more you’ll understand the overall company culture and how best to navigate it.

New Ideas Aren’t Welcomed

Not only is this a major source of toxicity in the workplace, but it’s one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in working for a company. Groups that are resistant to new ideas aren’t looking for innovation or improvement – they are looking to coast their way to mediocre results without doing any work.

If you are consistently bringing new ideas to the table that are being dismissed because of your race, gender, age, or any other personal factor – get out. Get out as fast as your feet can carry you! This is a company that is not only resistant to change, but is resistant too diversity. New ideas should be welcomed, championed, supported, and encouraged. Companies that ignore their colleagues in favor of the status quo do not deserve your energy. And they definitely don’t deserve your apologies, either.

If you have faith in the company as a whole but believe you are being elbowed out by a few bad apples, try to talk to other leaders and see if you can work for them. You have a unique and valuable voice, so don’t let it go to waste.

No One Takes Responsibility

Mistakes are meant for learning, not for avoiding. Making mistakes at any company is inevitable – and in healthy work environments, they are even celebrated. Messing up is a sign that you tried something new! You were trying to push your job, department, or company into a new direction – and whoops! – weren’t perfect, because none of us are.

If you don’t feel safe enough to admit your mistakes, that’s a terrible, terrible, sign. And if you don’t feel safe taking responsibility for a mess-up, chances are, no one else does, either.

This creates a culture of suspicion, mistrust, and deception. If you can’t be transparent with your superiors or colleagues, then your work won’t feel genuine. You’ll be too stressed out trying to be perfect that your work will suffer. And teamwork? Forget it. Why bother confiding in anyone else, where everyone is looking for an opportunity to one-up the other?!

You aren’t working at a company, you’re working in a cesspool.

Get out.

Fear is a Commonly Used Tactic

We all know there are plenty of ways to motivate others. Blush motivates our clients through encouragement, goal setting, advice sharing, inspirational quotes, and support. Parents motivate their kids with stickers after doing chores or dessert after eating vegetables. And yet, with all of this fantastic research being published day after day about the benefits of positive reinforcement – some companies still use fear as their main source of motivation.


If you feel fear driving to work, fear sitting during meetings, fear working by yourself, fear during presentations, only to experience pure relief once you finally walk out the door at 5pm – you’re in a hostile work environment.

Work should not be scary. Work is a place where you get to display some of your favorite skills and get paid for it. That’s all work is. Yes, sometimes work sucks – and that’s normal! But being SCARED of work is NOT NORMAL.

And moreover, it is psychological known that if people do not feel secure, they do not do their best work. This goes all the way back to Maslow. We need to feel mentally safe in order to relax and reach enlightenment – which is what most jobs would adore from you. But if you are constantly worried about getting FIRED, that is hostile. That is toxic. That is horrific. And that isn’t sustainable.
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Hostile Work Environments and the Law

A hostile work environment isn’t just uncomfortable – it can be illegal. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibits any kind of discrimination against protected classes (age, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, race, religion, or disability). Not all hostile work environments are illegal. If you believe the harassment you are enduring stems from discrimination due to a protected class, that’s illegal. Anything else is simply considered “unpleasant” and you will need to take matters into your own hands. This is where seeking professional help, like a life coach, can help you navigate what to do next.

If you feel you’ve been harassed at work due to any of these factors, you can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. A few things to know: you have 180 days from the incident to file a complaint, companies are typically liable for supervisors’ behavior if they did not take steps to prevent the harassment, and hiring a lawyer for tailored legal advice is usually encouraged.

Aside from discrimination, illegal hostile work environments usually contain toxic behavior that is 1) severe, 2) unwelcomed and 3) pervasive. 

While we are not lawyers – we do think it’s important that you take action if you believe you’ve been harassed in a hostile work environment.

Physical Side Effects of a Hostile Work Environment

It’s extremely common for mental stressors to manifest physically. Typical physical side effects of hostile work environments are irregular sleeping patterns, change in eating habits, headaches, stomach pains, fatigue, and ashiness.

If you’re experiencing any of these physical side effects while working in a hostile working environment – chances are, things won’t get much better as you’re already running off fumes. When your physical self isn’t 100%, your mental health suffers as well. Trying to cope in an already tense working environment is hard enough – but adding additional ailments will make continuing even more difficult.

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How to Protect Yourself in a Hostile Work Environment


If you are in the throws of a hostile work environment, try to document as much as you possibly can. Write down any unhealthy behavior you are experiencing with the date so you can keep track of everything you’re experiencing. Documentation will help explain your story best when meeting with HR, filling with the EEOC, or speaking with a life coach or counselor.


When in a stressful work situation, try to err on the side of caution with your finances. With unpredictable bosses and a hostile environment, there’s a much higher chance of a surprise termination or quitting on a whim. While it can be difficult to save money with student loans, high interest rates, and increases on rent – you will feel much more secure if you have some savings to tide you over during a rough patch. Best case scenario – you won’t need to dip into savings at all. Worst case scenario – you’re at least prepared.

Self Care

Focus as much as you possibly can on eating healthy foods, exercising daily, and getting a full 7-8 hours of sleep during this tough time. Even if you can’t control your work environment, you can control how you take care of yourself. We also highly recommend seeking professional help, like a counselor or a life coach. Blush Online Life Coaching offers affordable rates starting at $99/mo for video sessions or unlimited text. Talking to someone during this stressful time could help ease stress, generate some positive ideas and solutions, and alleviate any feelings of doubt or insecurity. And, additionally, we highly recommend consulting with a doctor if any physical side effects are extreme in nature.

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