Gender Discrimination at Work has differing definitions

by on December 12, 2008 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Management’s failure to act may cause a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Offensive colleagues create a hostile work environment
HR Director Bill Edison had two conversations this morning. The first was with Andy Bissell, who’d been the subject of a complaint by one of his subordinates, Alicia Crain.

“Where I come from, its good manners to tell a woman she looks nice,” Andy said. “I meant no offense whatsoever.’

“Well Andy, that’s not exactly what you did,” said Bill. “Alicia claims what you said was, ‘That outfit really accentuates your better points.’ ”

“Same thing, isn’t it?” Andy asked.

“Not really. Alicia doesn’t think so, and she says you’ve told some jokes that really upset her.”

Andy protested again that he never intended to offend Alicia.

Gender Discrimination looks different to different people

An hour later Bill spoke to Alicia.

“Now Alicia, I understand you’re upset, but let me ask you this: Did Andy in any way treat you unfairly? Did you get poor performance reviews? Did Andy ever even suggest that your job advancement or salary increases depended on sexual favors?”

“No, but so what?” exclaimed Alicia. “That’s not my point at all. You guys just don’t get it. As a woman I have every right to work in an environment free of sexual harassment. I just want to be treated as an equal.”

“Andy says he meant no offense,” said Bill.

Alicia exploded. “I don’t care what he thinks! What matters is that I’m offended by his attitude toward me as a woman and the things he says.”

Bill told Alicia he’d speak to Andy and tell him to knock it off. As Alicia left his office, Bill was thinking that since Andy took no adverse action against Alicia, the company would be safe if ever Alicia sued for gender discrimination.

A few weeks later Andy made another offensive comment, so Alicia resigned and sued for gender discrimination.

Did she win?

The decision

Yes. After other employees confirmed that Andy had said what Alicia claimed he’d said, the judge agreed that his comments created a hostile environment and sent the case to trial.

    This case reveals two important lessons:

  1. That courts will rule that sexual harassment occurred even if there was no “adverse action” taken against the plaintiff.
  2. That the courts always view legal disputes from the employee’s point of view, not the company’s or the manager’s. The days of “no offense intended” are long behind us. Today’s employees are keenly aware of their rights, not only to equal pay and promotions, but also to personal dignity. In this case, the court stood up for a woman’s right to feel comfortable in her work environment.
    It’s not just supervisors

And also beware that the offense need not be between superior and subordinate, as we saw here.

If colleagues are speaking or acting offensively to each other, and either HR or a line manager fails to intervene, your company can easily be found guilty of permitting sexual harassment and tolerating a hostile work environment precipitating a gender discrimination lawsuit.

Cite Elliott v. Burlington Industries, No. 02-45344, 8th Cir. Fictionalized for dramatic effect

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