What Is A Hostile Work Environment?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a boss’ wife accusations:

My wife’s boss asked her to come to the office, and she closed the door and began cursing her out–making false accusations toward her and saying how she can’t stand her. Does that justify filing a hostile work environment complaint with her HR officer? Thanks.

Signed, Stressed Husband

Dear Stressed Husband:

“Hostile work environment” is a term that historically described and expanded discrimination and sexual harassment cases; however, more recently it increasingly has been linked to verbal abuse and bullying. You tell of one occasion in which, behind closed doors, your wife’s boss cursed her made false accusations, and stated she couldn’t stand her. Does that constitute a hostile environment? Probably not, unless it is one instance of a pattern of boss behavior that has clouded the climate within your wife’s working area.

Should your wife let such verbal abuse pass? No. She should decide how to best confront and cope. It is good that she seeks your support, and it is important that she not allow this incident to be a matter of coworker gossip such that there is a quiet antagonism between her and her boss. Nor should you and she allow this to become an obsession that sours each day making her hate to leave for work.

A first step, since the event of abuse is past, is to reflect on what events preceded and might have precipitated her boss’ outburst and to recall in writing when this occurred, what specifically was said by her boss, and how she responded.

Second, she should decide if this is one time incident or typical of other encounters and if the boss has treated her unfairly. If there have been other such times, she should date and describe those too. Most likely more is behind the outburst than one moment of displeasure.

Third, if your wife she has the courage to confront her boss, she should meet privately with her to coolly learn what provokes such explosions and to firmly state that they are unacceptable. A face-to-face with her boss should spell out a firm mutual understanding of the rules of what is civil and uncivil communication. If she doesn’t have that kind of courage or interpersonal skill to schedule a time to confront her boss, she should decide on how she might prevent and/or react the next time such would occur. The simplest reaction she might have, should she be cursed and berated again by her boss, would be to hold up her hand in a stop gesture and say, “Stop cursing. Tell me civilly what if wrong and I’ll do my reasonable best to correct what frustrates you.” Should this not stop her, she could say, “Let’s go to HR together and work this through.” And then go to HR with or without the boss.

You asked if your wife should file a complaint with HR. The better approach is for her to request an investigation and to have copies of her log of what provoked this request ready should HR asked for details.Our site assists with communication-related workplace issues. We don’t give legal advice. Your wife’s instance of being a victim of what apparently is verbal bullying shouldn’t be seen as one that only could be corrected by securing an attorney. Legal recourse almost always is costly, time consuming and rarely successful. It is better to fight for civility within one’s work organization.

Yet it also is helpful to learn that bullying in some states and countries is considered a legal matter. See “The Undercover Lawyer: What Your Boss Does Not Want You To Know” http://www.undercoverlawyer.com/ This fact informs those that are clearly in a unhealthy work environment that verbal abuse and bullying merits seeking help from management. Work is difficult enough without being cursed and demeaned. It helps when we can like our boss and coworkers, but we aren’t hired for that.

In the private sector, we are employed to make our workplaces profitable. In the public sector, it is to make them effective. At a minimum, that means they our boss/bossed interactions should be civil. Optimally that means we harmoniously engage each as workplace associates, as I have a habit of saying, Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. It is my hope that these thoughts will provide you and your wife a constructive way to help shape her workplace in small ways that will enable all who work with her to want to come to work.

William Gorden