Too close for comfort? Infringing on personal space triggered sexual harassment lawsuit

by on January 14, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

You know you have to take employees’ sexual harassment complaints seriously. But what if an employee says a co-worker is invading his or her personal space?

Better take that seriously, too. A federal appeals court recently ruled that an Army employee in Puerto Rico may have harassed a co-worker by, among other things, moving his chair up close to hers in the cramped office they shared.

Touching legs
The employee claimed that when the co-worker moved his chair, they were so close their legs touched. She said he would also:

  • stand close behind her so she could feel his breath
  • look her up and down when they were in the office with the door closed
  • laugh when he saw that his staring flustered her, and
  • block the door to hinder her from leaving the office.

The employee said she repeatedly warned the co-worker to back off, saying he was “invading her space”. She eventually started using a nearby vacant office to avoid him. Eventually, the employee sued, claiming the co-worker created a sexually hostile work environment.

Initially, a judge threw out the case, but the appeals court reinstated it, saying the employee presented evidence there was more than just the incidental contact that could be expected in close quarters.

Takeaway: Be careful assigning employees — especially of opposite sexes — to share tight work spaces. And listen if employees of either sex complain about personal space issues.

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