Not-So-Obvious Sexual Harassment
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Not-So-Obvious Sexual Harassment

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.

16 Comments

  • Nymetfan2741 says:

    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.

  • Nymetfan2741 says:

    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.

  • SCM says:

    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 says:

      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.

  • SCM says:

    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 says:

      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.

  • Nancy Lewis says:

    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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share:

Get a demo of all our training features

Connect with an expert for a one-on-one demonstration of how Rapid Learning can help develop your team.