Breanna Jackson was elated upon landing her first HR job shortly after graduating from college. But a hostile work environment quickly eliminated those positive feelings.
Jackson, the only Black HR professional at her staffing agency, was unexpectedly called into a meeting with her HR manager early in her tenure. The supervisor said that higher-ranking employees had complained that Jackson was an “intimidating presence” who posed uncomfortable questions in meetings.
The episode confused Jackson because, as she explained, the executive team had repeatedly encouraged thoughtful questions and open discussions at work.
“I was not given any specific examples of how my questions made them uncomfortable, nor did any of the high-ranking individuals bother to talk to me one-on-one afterward,” she said. “The experience upset me to the point of crying in the bathroom.”
The workplace toxicity led to her eventual resignation the following year.
Jackson’s experience isn’t unique: A 2023 survey by Indeed found that nearly half of Black workers were considering leaving their workplace, many of whom cited a hostile work environment driven by microaggressions as the primary reason.
Microaggressions, or subtle slights against historically marginalized communities, have run rampant in U.S. workplaces. A 2019 survey of 4,275 adults, many of whom were people of color, found that 26 percent said they had “definitely” dealt with a microaggression at work.
Black workers are often unfairly accused of underperforming due to heightened expectations, Jackson explained. That creates additional barriers to success.
“There are multiple factors that contribute to a challenging work environment,” she said. “Without the backing of the company, it is rare for a Black employee to have the opportunity to express their concerns until their exit interview, if at all.”
Examples of Workplace Hostility
Octavia Goredema, a Los Angeles-based career coach and author of Prep, Push, Pivot: Essential Career Strategies for Underrepresented Women (Wiley, 2022), has faced workplace hostility throughout her career.
She’s heard co-workers tell her that she doesn’t “sound Black,” a common stereotype people of color often endure. Her past experiences have been doubted, Goredema said, and she hasn’t received the same levels of respect as many of her white peers, an obstacle she has often had to overcome in her career.
“When I was growing up, I was told by my family that I’d need to work twice as hard,” Goredema said. “But that’s often not enough.”
Despite the prevalence of workplace hostility in the U.S., these behaviors still can result in lawsuits. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a hostile workplace can include:
- Physical or sexual assaults or threats.
- Offensive jokes.
- Epithets or name-calling.
- Intimidation or bullying.
- Offensive objects or pictures.
- Interference with work performance.
Hostile behaviors can be overt or covert. If you’re experiencing or witnessing unfair treatment, exclusion from opportunities, offensive comments or explicit discrimination, you’re dealing with a hostility, Goredema explained.
Mindy Shoss, a professor and industrial-organizational psychologist at the University of Central Florida, told the American Psychological Association in 2023 that hostile workplaces can cause employees to become intimidated by their environment, which damages productivity.
“Toxic workplaces drain all the energy and excitement out of employees and replace it with fear,” she said.
Over time, a hostile work environment can erode a person’s self-esteem, career confidence, and emotional and mental well-being. The stress from a hostile workplace can spill over into an individual’s personal life, affecting relationships and overall quality of life.
In 2022, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy wrote that chronic stress from workplace abuse can contribute to depression, heart disease, cancer and other illnesses.
Workplace Civility Can Help When Applied Correctly
Nicole Price, an empathy and leadership coach in Kansas City, Mo., said civility can foster a respectful and inclusive workplace environment for Black employees. However, it can sometimes be misconstrued or misapplied in ways that inadvertently maintain the status quo.
“A superficial application of civility can lead to a situation where subtle acts of exclusion or discrimination are not adequately addressed because they are not overtly hostile or because addressing them might disrupt the facade of a harmonious workplace,” said Price, author of Spark the Heart: Engineering Empathy in Your Organization (ForbesBooks, 2023).
To play a constructive role in reducing workplace hostility and supporting Black employees, civility needs to be redefined and applied in a way that promotes genuine inclusivity and equity, Price said. That includes:
- Encouraging open dialogue. Civility should not silence difficult conversations but rather facilitate a respectful, productive exchange of ideas—including discussions about race, inclusion and equity.
- Actively listening. Seek to understand the perspectives of Black employees, rather than dismissing or minimizing them “in the name of maintaining harmony,” Price said.
- Offering accountability and action. Address instances of discrimination or exclusion directly to prevent their reoccurrence.
- Confronting uncomfortable truths. Do not shy away from the reality of Black experiences. HR must exercise compassion to support Black workers through these challenges to build a truly inclusive environment.
“In essence, civility must be leveraged not as a tool for avoidance but as a foundation for building a more just, equitable and inclusive workplace,” Price added. “This requires a shift from a passive understanding of civility to an active and engaged approach that champions openness, accountability and the ongoing work of inclusion.”