How does one deal with and cope when faced with a hostile work environment? Our happiness can be greatly impacted by others who are hostile towards us, and when we are faced with this issue at work, we can become miserable, depressed and unmotivated. We can also feel powerless and victimized.
Work comprises a large portion of our waking hours. When a work environment is hostile, it can infect and seep into our whole life, we can become hostile and angry ourselves and it can impact our overall mental health.
I have been faced with a hostile and toxic work environment many times and have learned through experience how to appropriately handle such situations. We do have options.
A Negative Response to a Hostile Co-Worker
When dealing with a hostile co-worker, a negative response is to fight back openly and verbally or to be passive aggressive through silent retaliation and underhanded warfare. If we verbally fight back, there can be repercussions, including being reprimanded by management, officially warned by Human Resources or worse, we could even be fired.
Silent retaliation and warfare can backfire against us and have similar repercussions. Doing so only feeds into the aggression and fuels the fire, which is ultimately unproductive and can make things far worse for us.
A Positive Response to a Hostile Co-Worker
Address the issue directly with your co-worker in a calm, reasonable yet firm manner. Confrontation can be very difficult for many people, but can be necessary. Give specific examples, and try to use “when you said X, Y or Z, I felt offended” language. This type of language is recommended by professionals when dealing with a confrontation and the expression of hurt or angry feelings because it is non-threatening and non-accusatory. When we accuse, it automatically puts the other person on the defensive and is counterproductive to achieving our goal. Also express to the individual that you do not want such comments or behavior to continue and that it is unacceptable to you. It will feel good to stand up for yourself and to draw boundaries and limits. You will be much happier for having done so.
However, if the behavior continues, your next step is to repeat the same message, document all examples and let the individual know you will approach management with the issue. Then, take it up with your manager or Human Resources department. It is important when doing so to remain professional and calm and to present all documented examples.
When Dealing with a Hostile or Toxic Boss
Dealing with a hostile boss can also greatly impact our happiness and productivity level at work. In this case and similar to a co-worker, follow the same steps, documenting all examples and taking the issue to upper management or Human Resources when there is a pattern of behavior. When confronting your boss, you can tell your him/her, “when you do that, I feel less motivated”, or “when you say things like that, it impacts my productivity at work and my ability to be happy here.”
I know this can be very hard to do and takes a lot of courage. However, it is healthy to stand up for yourself, you will feel much happier for having done so, and whenever we can tie our boss’s behavior directly to our productivity level, it will gain their attention. Bosses want us to be productive. Bad bosses often don’t care much about our happiness, but they do care about their bottom line.
Again, always remain professional, maintain your composure and try to be calm and unemotional when approaching your boss. When we become emotional, we are not heard as easily, the message becomes diluted by the emotion and it can anger your boss and cause them to react emotionally in response. Becoming emotional only adds fuel to the fire.
If your boss reacts with anger or attacks you verbally even though you have approached him/her in a professional manner, still try to maintain your composure and professionalism. You will feel good about yourself for being the more mature person. What helps me in this case is to view your boss as a child throwing a tantrum. When we can see our boss from this viewpoint, they become less threatening and less powerful.
Interestingly enough and in contrast, a study conducted by Ohio State University showed that employees who became hostile back towards their bosses felt better and less like victims, experienced less psychological distress and were more satisfied with their jobs than those who did nothing. So there is another option, though I tend to address the issue directly or through Human Resources myself. However, some people may be far more comfortable with this approach as opposed to confronting the person or taking it to management.
And unfortunately in the United States at present, there are no employment laws against workplace bullying, if you are being bullied by a boss or co-worker. The only laws of protection are in the case of sexual harassment (laws vary per state) or outright discrimination. It is best to try to address and resolve the issue yourself to improve your work environment, mental health and stress level. In the case of workplace bullying, I recommend the same steps outlined above.
When dealing with a hostile work environment, your happiness and mental health are well worth the effort of trying to address and resolve the issue. Take proactive steps, and you will feel much happier for having done so.