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Hostile Work Environment Definition

Is a Prison Camp Comparable to Living Through a Hostile Work Environment?

I’ve been wanting to write more, and post more regularly to this blog. Like lots of people, instead of working directly on my goal I’ve procrastinated by doing any number of different things that feel like they are related to my goal, but really aren’t. I’ve compiled lists of writing ideas, written out writing schedules, got a new writing program to use on my laptop, and the mother-of-all-time-wasters: “research.”

In an effort to not waste so much time clicking from article to article on the web, I decided I would shut the laptop and go back to reading some full length books. But you got to start slow, right? Not just jump into reading dense legal reference books. So I thought it would be good to read a book about overcoming adversity, since so many of the people who visit this site are trying, desperately, to overcome severe adversity at work.

The book I picked up was “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”. It is the story of Army Air Forces bomber Louis Zamperini overcoming adversity, then worse adversity, then even worse adversity, then repeatedly facing death.


Not to give anything away, but even if you just read the cover flap of this book you’ll learn that Louis crashes into the pacific and is presumed lost. He and another from his plane survive for weeks in a life raft, face down sharks, dehydration, starvation, and then right when it appears they are going to be saved they get shot at and taken prisoner by the Japanese military.

The first portion of this book, where Louis fights nature to stay alive, is inspiring in a traditional way. It’s not too different than any “lost at sea” or “shipwrecked” story that you’ve heard before except that Unbroken is so exceptionally well written. Where the book becomes not just inspiring, but also deeply troubling and cautionary in tone is after the Japanese military captures Louis and he is sent to a prison camp.

What I got out of the book also changed. Instead of merely learning some lessons about “overcoming adversity” — of surviving a plane wreck and living in a life raft — when Louis and his friend Phil are sent to a prison camp the meaning of the book suddenly began to parallel the lives of so many people who are bullied and harassed at work.

No, really. I know some who read this article will think I’m going way over the top when I say that a WWII prison camp is an appropriate comparison for what it feels like to live in a hostile work environment. And, I do realize most employees don’t face death and beatings in the modern workplace.

But hear me out on why I think the prison camp actually is a good analogy for a truly hostile work environment; there are many parallels to how it FEELS.

  • The inability to make sense of what is happening to you
  • The confusion over why this being allowed to happen
  • Why are good people standing by and not doing something to stop this?
  • The mental anguish that continues even after the tormentor is gone for the day — the way the few minutes of actual interaction with the tormentor occupy the employee/prisoner’s mind for hour after anguishing hour, taking away sleep, the ability to interact with others, or even think about anything other than worry and fear over the NEXT interaction with the tormentor.

Here is the passage, describing how Louis and Phil maintained feelings of hope when they were trying to survive in their life raft after their plane (the Green Hornet) crashed. But, how difficult it became to maintain hope when instead of fighting nature, they became prisoners of war and had to fight off the humiliation their captors subjected them to.

This is the text that caused me to believe that prison camps are an instructive analogy for what it feels like to live through a hostile work environment:

The crash of Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water, or shelter. But on Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live. One American airman, shot down and relentlessly debased by his Japanese captors, described the state of mind that his captivity created: “I was literally becoming a lesser human being.”

In both situations the total organization is not completely evil. Even in the prison camps that Louis lived through there were guards who were humane, who showed compassion, and who tried to make life a little better for the prisoners.

There were also laws, from the Geneva convention, that were supposed to protect prisoners of war so that prisoners were treated humanely. In addition to the Geneva convention, the Japanese military had its own rules about the ethical treatment of prisoners, and set limits on what guards and prison officials could and could not do.

Just like business organizations, where most people are basically good, a few dark souls worked their way into positions of authority at the prison camps where Louis was held. While a prisoner of war Louis was abused by a prison official who oversaw a single camp who was known as “the Bird.” Bird wasn’t the head of all the prison camps, he was only in charge of one location at a time. There were good people in the Japanese Military above Bird, and there were good people below him. Despite the presence of ethical people around him, Bird was allowed to single out, abuse, beat and psychologically torment Louis.

Bird physically and mentally tortured Louis for no apparent reason. And for no apparent reason the ethical people around Bird did not step up and stop him from trying to destroy Louis. The international laws of the Geneva convention did not stop Bird from beating Louis. The Japanese Military’s own rules about ethical treatment of prisoners did not stop Bird from threatening Louis with death one day, then acting like he never made the threat the next day.

  • Why did the laws fail Louis?
  • Why did the internal rules of the Japanese military fail Louis?
  • Why did the humane people above Bird and below Bird in the prison camp system fail to stop Bird from beating and mentally torturing Louis?
  • And what was it about Bird himself that lead him to behave so cruelly?

All of these questions parallel the questions that abused employees ask themselves.

  • Why are employment laws ignored?
  • How come company policies are not followed?
  • Why do executives turn a blind eye to abusive managers, and how come co-workers won’t stand up against a bully (is it for fear that they will become the bully’s next target)?

The similarities continue.  Prison camp survivors continue suffering mental anguish even after the confinement ends.  Louis struggled with nightmares about Bird. Even when safely back in the U.S., Louis either could not sleep, or his sleep was stolen by dreams of Bird torturing him both physically and psychologically. To help him avoid these painful memories and dreams, Louis began drinking every night. His marriage suffered. His body suffered. After surviving years of living in a military prison camp, the mere memories of abuse (rather than the abuse itself) nearly destroyed him.

Since the title of the book is “Unbroken”, you’ve probably figured out that the prison camps and memories of abuse by his tormentor do not ultimately destroy Louis. The book is inspiring, as I had hoped, but it is also more than that.

Unbroken provides keen insights into how it feels to be singled out for cruel and meaningless abuse by another human being. The book struggles to make sense out of how a few dark souls can bring themselves to intentionally cause another human being to suffer.  Though there really is no good explanation as to why one human acts so cruelly toward another, the message of the book is one of hope.

Somewhere deep inside every victim there is the capacity to cling to your essential human dignity, and not allow your tormentor to reach your soul. In each of us, deep inside, there is the strength to remain unbroken.

P.S. Click on the book cover to go to Amazon and read more about the amazing story “Unbroken”. Please know that if you use this link to Amazon, like any link to Amazon from this site, and you decide to buy the book, I will receive a small commission. It helps pay for hosting, which I appreciate, but you are free to go to Amazon my typing the URL into your navigation bar or purchasing the book at you local bookstore. Either way, “Unbroken” is a great read you won’t be able to put down. -Curt

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  1. I totally agree. The comparison of a hostile workplace and prison camp, as you point out, is actually quite accurate. Honestly, i think anyone who thinks the comparrison is off key has never really experienced a hostile work environment and the physical/mental anguish that goes with it…. Thanks for the great work

  2. I work with former POW’s and while that experience, being kidnapped, etc are far more dramatic the underlying damage is mental more than physical. It is similar (in my case concomitant with) complex PTSD exacerbated by a dysfunctinoal work place. Unlike the above examples I do often wonder is those with certain conditions don’t make for easier targets for bullying. Lastly, the final question I often ask is why can’t I treat bullies now like I did as a younger man (a negative feedback loop)

  3. CC West, Thanks for your supportive comments. I agree with you in observing that most people who object to the comparison have never lived through a hostile work environment. Though there are a few, and they usually have a loved one in the military or were in the service themselves. Some of these people see *any* comparison to military service as a kind of blasphemy that demeans our services members. Of course I don’t intend that at all. I’m just searching for a good analogy of how it *feels* to a harassed employee.

    Johnec, As someone who works with POWs I was very interested to see your comment, and thanks for sharing your insights. I also agree that actually being a POW is, physically, far worse that being an abused employee; and you seem to “get” that I wasn’t equating the experience physically. Finally, yeah, wouldn’t it be nice to just punch the bully in the nose!


  4. I was in the midst of the worst work scenario in 2008 after I jumped through hoops to get the position in the city. It was what I thought, the peak of my career, working for a well-known cultural institution. I was thrilled then in for quite a shock – I was treated for the first time in my life with disdain and humilation for over a year with the only goal being simply to ‘survive’ it. I am still traumatized to this day – I find it terribly hard to relax in any work environment as fun as they can be sometimes; I find it difficult to sleep when I used to sleep soundly; I find it hard to let go of any mistakes I feel I made throughout the day; I find myself second-guessing myself after years of confidence and I cannot eat well – I either starve for weeks on end or I gorge and blow up. The mental games were just over the top and likely the true source of my deep pain of being abandoned by my own department and allowed to be treated in such a manner. My colleagues took me out for ‘drinks’ on the day I made sure I got laid-off (Yes I managed that myself) and they all said they saw me suffering and wanted me to go through what they all went through – a truly terrible group of folks I was happy to get away from. But I survived and don’t feel guilty. Tried to change the systems while in it so no one else would have to go through it and it never happened. I didn’t think it would. Best of luck to them.

  5. NonCannibalRat says:

    This is absolutely true. It is easy to understand how this happens if one has experienced childhood abuse. The abuser may believe that they are doing right by the child by giving them discipline. If the abusive parent is ignorant of constructive means of dealing with conflict or becomes more concerned with their own needs at the expense of the child, then the child will be subject to emotional trauma. There are many other factors involved with the workplace. Economic & politics, especially since the late 20th century, play a major role here.

  6. cc west says:

    I mean, i get it…. If someone would have shared that analogy with me prior to experiencing it i probably would have thought they were loopy. I fully appreciate the comparison; they are almost parallel to each other.

    From what i have read, it is not uncommon for people to suffer from PTSD due to their hostile workplace. Its a sad, sad thing…. Im just glad i have the support and background to rise up from a beat down like this! I often wonder how others with little or no support

  7. C.Harrison says:

    Why — it is not working?

  8. It is my opinion that the analogy is very much applicable to being a POW. If one examines the root behaviors in each scenario, abuse is at the forefront, plain and simple. You are not dismissing in any shape or form the atrocities of being a POW. Rather, I see it as using a graphical reference most people can understand to bring light to a subject that seems innocuous on the surface, but in reality destroys the victims in much the same manner. It is also significantly more prevalent. Most of us stand little to no chance of ever being a POW. However, most of us stand a fairly decent chance of being exposed to hostile workplaces, or worse yet, the victim of an unchecked tormentor.

    I’m not sure what it is with human behavior that causes people to get into this defensive mode so readily without taking the time to think through the relative reference being proposed. I’ll offer this analogy: three people with cancer. Person A has prostate cancer, but that is easy compared to person B with breast cancer. But person B’s breast cancer is no where near as bad as person C’s pancreatic cancer. Lost in this meaningless one-upsmanship ranking exercise is the fact that all three people have cancer and all three cancers can be fatal. There isn’t an “easy” one or one that is no big deal. They all share a common bond of battling cancer, just like victims of abuse have all gone through a similar process of being dehumanized and destroyed, whoever the perpetrator may have been.

  9. DukeInTX says:

    When you hear the term POW, your mind is flooded with thoughts and images of the prison camps you’ve seen or heard about in your lifetime. No rights, just another head to count or a number…name doesn’t matter. Though you’re free to go to and leave your job on a daily basis, there’s almost an instituionalized feeling you get, the longer you work there. It would seem you would have rights for unfair treatment or abuse. But when it comes down to fighting it, your employer gets away with it…because they CAN! Where I work, it has bars around it, the inside makes you feel like you really are cut off from the rest of the world. And though you’re really free to come and go as your shift goes, you develop a feeling of learned hopelessness or helplessness. After a few years, I started to call the place Shawshank. I got to looking at the long-time workers there, that just seemed like worn-out souls who really knew no other place than that work floor and what they had gotten so used to over the decades of working there.

    Supervisors and managers are trained pretty much to not give a good rat’s ass about the actual workers…the ones that REALLY get things done and keep the place going. They will harass you as far as they can get away with it, and despite EEOs or your Union, they continue to treat people in such a way. I realized how bad it really was when I was injured on the job, by faulty company equipment, at no fault of my own. They immediately put a target on me, harassing and tormenting me. And you have to go through all of this, and learn the hard way that a lot of upper management doesn’t know what they’re doing when it comes to filing paperwork on your behalf. Or maybe they do, when it comes to filing it wrong, or just not at all. And with me, they’ve gotten away with all they have, because they’re the federal government and they simply CAN get away with it. And when it comes to attorneys…you have to find a FEDERAL attorney to represent you, and there’s not a huge amount of money in it for them. So, you begin to realize that you actually have fewer rights in the workplace than you thought you really had. I’ve found all this out the hard way. Just showing up to work causes anxiety. I get on that floor, and I just want to throw up, because I’ve been institutionalized by their system and I’m so worn down, I don’t have much energy left to fight. Recently, there was a disciplinary hearing held in regards to absences, due to my injuries. The night before my meeting, I had to be taken off the floor and rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, due to severe complications of my injuries, which have rendered me crippled for life. Because I could not make the meeting, they ruled against me. So, in the next week or so, I’ll be getting a letter of removal. That’s what I get for being injured on the job by their faulty equipment, and a life to look forward to walking with a cane. And in fighting them, they will take their sweet time in doing so, for me to try and regain my employment. There are workers around there that wear t-shirts that pretty much says it all: “POW…Post Office Worker”. I’ve become a foremost authority on hostile work environments and what it feels like to be a prisoner. I don’t wish that on ANYONE!

  10. JoePi, I like your own analogy comparing different kinds of abuse/emotional trauma to three different kinds of cancer. Very instructive and insightful.

    DukeInTX, How ironic that you have actually been referring to your workplace as “Shawshank” and that your co-workers have taken to wearing “POW” t-shirts. You are one of many post office workers who have come to this site, by the way. It’s amazing to me that what should be a good job appears to be rife with politics and back biting. By the way, I suggest you try to designate the time you missed due to going to the hospital as FMLA time. Then they can’t hold it or missing the meeting against you.

    I just shake my head at how much bullying and harassment goes on in our nation’s post offices.


  1. […] hear me out on why I think the prison camp actually is a good analogy for a truly Hostile Work Environment; there are many parallels to how it […]

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