Stress is an everyday part of the American work life. No matter the job or company, clients and customers are demanding, and there never seems to be enough hours in the day. But while stress is an accepted part of the culture, there’s another factor that’s unfortunately becoming more commonplace:

Hostile work environments.

In a recent study, it was reported that nearly 20 percent of all workers say they faced a threatening or hostile work environment in 2015 — a number researchers call “disturbingly high.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with client-facing jobs share a disproportionate amount of bullying and sexual harassment.

Other statistics from the study included:

  • About 75 percent said they spend a quarter of their time in intense or repetitive physical labor.
  • Over half say they work in unpleasant or potentially hazardous conditions.
  • Under 40 percent say their companies have opportunities for advancement, and that optimism drops as workers age.
  • Over a third of workers say they have no say when it comes to scheduling.
  • Almost 80 percent say telecommuting is not an option.
  • About 50 percent say they work on their own time to get all their work done.

For some small businesses, a few of these conditions, like telecommuting or physical tasks, simply aren’t feasible. However, these aren’t usually considered to be part of a hostile work environment.

Under federal law, a hostile work environment is one in which employees feel unwelcome, uncomfortable or even threatened due to comments or behavior from coworkers based on:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Pregnancy
  • Other legally protected characteristics

It’s easy to let a joke or two slip by. But if you do, it could quickly snowball into a harassment lawsuit. There are ways you can make sure you aren’t inadvertently fostering a hostile work environment.  Here are three techniques to consider:

  1. Stop It Before It Starts

In many cases, a hostile work environment isn’t created intentionally. Rather, it happens when employees have conversations that include off-color remarks that they think are harmless. Employee onboarding should include training that lays out in very plain terms what is considered harassment, and the consequences for breaking these rules. Make sure they know from the start that this kind of behavior is never tolerated.

If you do hear inappropriate joking in the workplace, even just an offhanded remark in the break room, address it immediately. Though you may not be able monitor every conversation, especially as a small business owner, make sure your managers do have an ear out for these remarks. That’s not to say the workplace can’t be a fun environment, but your employees should clearly know where the line is — and what happens if they cross it.

  1. Avoid Sensitive Topics

In today’s political environment, each side of the aisle is seemingly more fired up than ever before. A simple derogatory comment toward a leader of either political party could quickly escalate into a much more severe situation. For this reason, it’s generally best to tell employees they should not be discussing politics when they’re at work. If a political discussion does crop up, nip it in the bud or at least monitor it to make sure it doesn’t become divisive.

Conversations about religion should be even more tightly controlled — or abolished altogether. For religious workers, their beliefs are some of the most sacred in their lives. Broaching the topic could lead to remarks that were not meant to be construed as harassment, but can easily come across as such. Unless your small business is one built on a certain religion or belief system, such as a nonprofit, the topic is best left outside the workplace.

  1. Be Ready to Take Action

Though you may not be best friends with your employees, you should have an open-door policy when it comes to harassment or other hostile work environment complaints. Whether an employee comes to you in person or passes along an anonymous note, take it seriously. When you take these complaints seriously, two things happen. One, future victims will be more comfortable coming forward. And two, potential offenders will think twice about what they say.

When a complaint is presented, address it immediately. Conduct an investigation into the offense. Ideally, the alleged harasser should have no say in the investigation; so, if they are in the chain of command, it may be wise to bring in a third party. If the investigation shows the harassment did take place, the offender should be punished promptly and appropriately, up to and including termination.

As a small business owner, you have a lot to worry about. By taking these steps, you can better ensure a hostile workplace environment isn’t one of them. That way, your employees can focus on producing the best work they can without the fear of bullying and harassment from their coworkers — or their superiors.

At Company.com, we can relieve some of your other stress points as well. From hiring to accounting to cyber security, our software suite can manage many of the day-to-day operations for you. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your small business thrive, and to start a free trial of our premium package.