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Hostile Work Environment Definition

Avoiding the Axe (Pt. 1) — By Jenn S.

It is with great pride that I introduce a new attorney and columnist to the community of  Jenn S. is a small town employment lawyer who has been a big city employment lawyer, big corporation H.R. Rep, and for a time was even a rock music journalist!  She brings all these different backgrounds to her columns.

I met Jenn when we were both employed at a large law firm.  We’ve both since moved on to greener pastures (almost literally for her), but we’ve kept in touch due to a friendship forged in the trenches law firm life.  I’d say we both learned a LOT in those early years of our legal careers, but we’re both happy to be elsewhere now.

Jenn lives in a beautiful spot some where in the Mountain Time Zone; she has one young son, a husband, and a great sense of humor.  She’s worked in Human Resources for two gigantic national retail chains that you probably shopped at recently (Just today I was shopping in one, and drove by two separate locations of the other).

Jenn speaks in a casual, down to earth tone; you will enjoy her humor and her advice, which will be appearing twice each week here on  With that, Here is Jenn’s first article:


As an HR professional and employment law attorney, I have heard more than my fair share of workplace nightmares. People are just going along, minding their own business when suddenly they are thrust into some horrific drama that ends in their termination – and they never saw it coming. The following tips are things that I have gleaned from experiences throughout my career and encourage all employees to follow them religiously. That is, if you want to stay employed.

DON’T touch people. This is almost always my number one tip when I conduct employee trainings. The rule goes for everyone but even more for the guys. Just don’t touch anyone – don’t pat on the back, or touch a waist, give hugs, massage shoulders, etc. Beyond the simple handshake, you should just avoid touching all together, if you possibly can. There are some nutty people out there who might interpret your supportive back patting as a come-on. Couple a few poorly-placed pats with one or two off-color jokes or emails and you might just find yourself fired for harassment, or at least accused and so mortified that you are forced to resign. If you MUST touch someone, touch somewhere very non-sexual – like the top of the shoulder. And don’t ever touch anyone’s hair – for some reason that is a particularly intimate gesture that people find invasive and just generally creepy.

DON’T get drunk at company events. If you tend to get a little “crazy” when you drink, you’d be better off just sipping ginger ale when in the company of workplace folk. Fun as it may be to go out and tie one on with the crowd, this is a danger zone, especially for women. A drunk woman is always viewed much worse than a drunk man – one might be amazed how quickly credibility and respect can disappear after a night of debauchery with the guys. Even more risky…if you get a little too “friendly” when you’ve had a few. Male or female – this is a veritable minefield that you should avoid at all costs. If you end up in bed with someone from work, you might as well start revising your resume because it will come back to haunt you and, depending on your position, it could cost you your job. Best advice – stay sober and you’ll stay hired.

DON’T get romantically involved with ANYONE from work. This tip goes hand in hand with the previous one. The best tip, really, is just to keep your sex life out of the office, period. Don’t mess around with anyone who is even remotely related to your workplace, be it a distant regional manager or your local union rep. Assuming the relationship does not result in matrimonial bliss (and chances are pretty high that it will not), you run many risks, including looking like the office tramp, being the focus of that nasty intra-office gossip, being accused of sexual harassment, or just being fired for acting, well…trashy. It can happen. I’ve seen it happen. So when it comes to work, just keep your pants on. There are plenty of people out there who are available for relationships that don’t work at your company. Find them.

DON’T utilize your work email or internet account as your own personal playground. Remember, those accounts do not belong to you – they belong to your employer. You should have no expectation of privacy. Your employer can read your emails and trace your internet activity all they want. So tempting as it may be to forward that sex-related joke or to visit questionable websites while you are on the clock, restrain yourself. You would be amazed at the seemingly innocuous emails that have landed people in the unemployment line.

DON’T be “best friends” with anyone at work. Another name for this tip could be “don’t trust anyone at work.” I hate to sound so negative because there are usually a lot of really good people in every workplace and we want to be able to trust people. But I learned this one by personal experience and was completely blindsided when my alleged “friend” threw me under the bus, so to speak. Generally, it is fine to have friendly relationships with people you work with but when you find yourself starting to really share your home life or your personal feelings about the company, the boss, or coworkers with another coworker – you are crossing into dangerous territory. Becoming too close to a coworker or supervisor leaves you vulnerable to attack should things suddenly go wrong. Keep your workplace relationships light – save the heavy stuff for your therapy sessions.

These are just a few of my best tips for avoiding trouble in the workplace and staying employed. Be on the look out for part two in the coming weeks – there are more pitfalls awaiting you!


Questions for Jenn?  Have you seen someone torpedo their career with one of the foibles she mentions? Post your questions and stories in the comments section below.

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