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How do you document a hostile work environment?

Dealing with a hostile work environment can be stressful and frustrating. Many employees feel powerless in these situations. However, taking action by properly documenting the harassment is key to improving the situation.

What constitutes a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment refers to a workplace where an employee is subjected to harassment, intimidation, or abuse that is:

  • Persistent and ongoing
  • Directed at the employee
  • Based on the employee’s protected class status – race, gender, religion, etc.
  • Severe or pervasive enough to make doing one’s job difficult

Examples of behaviors that could contribute to a hostile work environment include:

  • Bullying and intimidation
  • Offensive jokes, slurs, or remarks
  • Threats, aggression, yelling
  • Exclusion and isolation
  • Sabotage of work activities
  • Display of offensive material in the workplace

The harassment must be based on the employee’s protected status as a member of a certain group – for example their gender, race, age, disability, or religion.

Why is documentation important?

Documentation serves as evidence if legal action becomes necessary down the road. Courts and organizations look for a record of events when investigating hostile workplace claims.

Thorough documentation can help demonstrate:

  • How pervasive the issue is
  • Who is involved/at fault
  • The effects on the employee
  • That the employee took reasonable steps to address it

Without documentation, it becomes a matter of the employee’s word against others. With documentation, the employee can present tangible details and establish a timeline of events.

What should you include in the documentation?

Documentation of a hostile work environment should be:

  • Comprehensive – include all relevant details
  • Accurate – record all events factually as they occurred
  • Objective – steer clear of assumptions and emotional language
  • Consistent – follow the same documentation process each time
  • Ongoing – continuously add to it while the issue persists

Document the following elements relating to each hostile incident:

  • Date, time, and place it occurred
  • What exactly happened – verbatim quotes and specific behaviors
  • Names of all parties involved, including witnesses
  • How you felt and how it affected your work
  • Any action you or your employer took to address it

You can document incidents right as they happen, or as soon as possible afterwards. Keep all documentation together in an organized file or journal.

Examples of effective documentation

Incident report

Date: March 5, 2020
Time: 9:15 am
Location: Office cubicle

As I was preparing for a meeting, my coworker John came to my desk and said loudly “Why do we have to listen to all the women around here?” He looked directly at me as he said it.

I felt shocked, targeted, and offended. John left right after making the comment. Two coworkers in nearby cubicles, Anne and Steve, overheard it.

I emailed my manager immediately and asked for a meeting to discuss the inappropriate remark.

Journal entry

April 2, 2020

Today my supervisor Claire unfairly criticized my work in front of the whole team, saying my report was sub-par and late. In reality, no deadline was specified and I completed it three days ago. She did not provide any constructive feedback.

I felt angry and humiliated when she called my work sub-par without reason. It seemed like she deliberately tried to make me look incompetent. My teammates looked surprised and uncomfortable.

I worry Claire is targeting me unfairly due to reasons beyond just my work. I plan to follow up with her one-on-one to address this.

Who should you report harassment to?

If you are experiencing a hostile work environment, follow your company’s reporting procedures:

  1. Report it to your direct supervisor or human resources
  2. If your supervisor is the problem, go above their head to HR or senior leadership
  3. Reach out to your company’s confidential hotline if available
  4. Consult your employee handbook for the proper channels
  5. Consider reporting to an external agency like the EEOC if internal reports are ignored

When meeting with someone, provide copies of your documentation. Follow up any verbal conversation in writing – for example, email HR recapping the meeting and next steps. This continues to build your paper trail.

How often should you report harassment?

Do not stay silent or wait for things to blow over. Report each incident of harassment promptly and pursue all internal reporting channels.

  • Report minor incidents to establish a pattern
  • Report major incidents immediately
  • Follow up if issues continue after reporting
  • Escalate reports up the chain of command if needed

The frequency of reporting depends on the severity and frequency of incidents. But aim for consistency in reporting everything relevant that occurs.

What if you do not feel comfortable reporting internally?

If you fear retaliation or distrust your company to respond appropriately, you can look into external reporting options, such as:

  • State or federal anti-discrimination agencies
  • Relevant regulatory bodies
  • Outside legal counsel

An external report should still be your last resort. Attempt all possible internal resolutions first and document these efforts.

If you speak to an attorney, your conversation is legally privileged. But keep in mind that filing a formal complaint starts legal proceedings.

What are best practices for reporting harassment?

Follow these tips when reporting hostile workplace incidents:

  • Stick to precise, objective facts – no speculation or exaggeration
  • Use a neutral and professional tone
  • Avoid heated language or blaming
  • Focus the report on behaviors and your job – not personalities
  • Request specific outcomes like an apology or mediation
  • Follow up a verbal report in writing
  • Save copies of all reports and replies

The key is to remain calm, factual, and solution-focused. Avoid letting emotion cloud your report, no matter how upset you feel.

Can you be fired for reporting workplace harassment?

It is illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for making a report of discrimination or harassment. Protected activities include:

  • Filing an internal complaint with your employer
  • Filing a claim with the EEOC or state agency
  • Participating in workplace investigations
  • Requesting reasonable accommodation

If you experience retaliation – firing, demotion, punishment, or further harassment – immediately file another complaint. Retaliation itself becomes a valid legal claim.


The best way to address a hostile work environment is through prompt, consistent documentation and reporting. Do not stay silent or wait for issues to go away. Establish a paper trail through your reports and detailed notes. Follow internal procedures first, then escalate externally if needed. Maintaining excellent documentation strengthens your case and encourages a resolution.