Not-So-Obvious Sexual Harassment

by on July 14, 2010 · 16 Comments POSTED IN: HR Cafe
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We all know there are two kinds of harassment. But which is the trickiest for HR folks to deal with?

A. Quid-pro quo
B. Hostile environment

The answer is B. Quid-pro-quo harassment is usually pretty straightforward. The term literally means “one thing for another” and QPQ harassment generally involves a manager crossing a well-defined line — for example, promising some benefit to a specific employee in exchange for sexual favors.

But hostile environment harassment can be REALLY tricky. How, for example, do you define “hostile”? If two males are telling dirty jokes that clearly target a specific female … well, that would almost certainly create a hostile work environment.

But what if two guys are telling offensive jokes privately in the lunch room and a woman seated two tables away happens to overhear them? In today’s world, plaintiff’s lawyers could spin that into a hostile environment case.

How do the courts wrestle with these “not-so-obvious” cases? They’ve come up with what’s called the “reasonable person test.” They ask, “Might a ‘reasonable person’ be offended by the language or behavior in question?” If the answer is yes, they’ll likely rule that hostile environment harassment has occurred.

Which, of course, begs the question: Who is a reasonable person? You? The person who complained? The guys who “didn’t mean anything” with their crude comments? In close cases, we’d suggest giving the benefit of the doubt to the person who complained — and not just to protect yourself in court. A workplace can’t be effective unless people feel safe from harassment.

You might not want to impose discipline if there was no intent to offend. But — absent any evidence that the complainant is UNreasonable — it’s best to put a stop to any such behavior going forward. After all, it’s a pretty big step for someone to actually speak up. And if one person speaks up, there’s a good chance others are feeling the same way too.

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16 Comments on This Post

  1. Nymetfan2741
    July 14, 2010 - 1:00 pm

    I once watched a manager fire an employee on the spot for consistently telling sexist jokes in the lunchroom. I found out later that they were, in fact, directed at a fellow employee, so the firing was 100% justified, but if that manager hadn't been in the room, it could have gotten ugly for the company.

  2. Nymetfan2741
    July 14, 2010 - 1:00 pm

    I once watched a manager fire an employee on the spot for consistently telling sexist jokes in the lunchroom. I found out later that they were, in fact, directed at a fellow employee, so the firing was 100% justified, but if that manager hadn't been in the room, it could have gotten ugly for the company.

  3. SCM
    July 14, 2010 - 1:19 pm

    I manage a female worker who tells jokes and makes comments that are pretty risque. The guys don't seem to mind but I struggle with balancing the risk and killing morale by breaking up every casual conversation. Any suggestions?

    • Nancy Lewis
      July 14, 2010 - 5:48 pm

      iN OUR DIVERSITY AND ETHICS TRAINING, WE PREACH “OUCH” AND “STOP” AS SIMPLE WORDS TO ALERT THE JOKER THAT THEY ARE OVER THE LINE. IT WORKS.

  4. SCM
    July 14, 2010 - 1:19 pm

    I manage a female worker who tells jokes and makes comments that are pretty risque. The guys don't seem to mind but I struggle with balancing the risk and killing morale by breaking up every casual conversation. Any suggestions?

    • Nancy Lewis
      July 14, 2010 - 5:48 pm

      iN OUR DIVERSITY AND ETHICS TRAINING, WE PREACH “OUCH” AND “STOP” AS SIMPLE WORDS TO ALERT THE JOKER THAT THEY ARE OVER THE LINE. IT WORKS.

  5. Nancy Lewis
    July 14, 2010 - 9:48 pm

    iN OUR DIVERSITY AND ETHICS TRAINING, WE PREACH “OUCH” AND “STOP” AS SIMPLE WORDS TO ALERT THE JOKER THAT THEY ARE OVER THE LINE. IT WORKS.

  6. August 27, 2010 - 10:53 am

    Refer to your company’s dress code, not your personal standards

  7. August 27, 2010 - 10:53 am

    Refer to your company’s dress code, not your personal standards

  8. September 27, 2010 - 11:31 am

    Were employees casually flirting, or was it sexual harassment?

  9. September 27, 2010 - 11:31 am

    Were employees casually flirting, or was it sexual harassment?

  10. November 22, 2010 - 11:00 am

    Boss abused female employee in blatant gender discrimination case

  11. November 22, 2010 - 11:00 am

    Boss abused female employee in blatant gender discrimination case

  12. December 15, 2010 - 10:57 am

    Sexual harassment can never be tolerated in any circumstance

  13. December 15, 2010 - 10:57 am

    Sexual harassment can never be tolerated in any circumstance

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