Over a period of time, male employees make occasional off-color jokes in their female co-worker’s presence. They also keep suggestive photos of women in plain view. Finally, the female employee gets fed up and sues, saying her co-workers’ behavior amounts to a hostile work environment. Did she win?
Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.
”I’ve taken a lot of bull from the guys for a long time, but I’m not going to take it anymore,” Vanessa Muir told HR manager Billy Weil.
“I seem to recall you complained a year ago that someone tied a tampon to a key ring in your work station,” Billy said.
“That was a joke in bad taste and although we could never find out who did it, we told the guys to knock it off,” Billy continued.
“A lot of good that did – it never stopped,” said Vanessa. “I’m still the only woman in that area. And the guys all put these pin-up girls on their toolboxes.”
“One guy has a naked woman on his computer screensaver,” added Vanessa. “I have to walk by it every day. And they keep saying inappropriate things.
“It’s offensive,” she continued. “I just want to do my work and not be exposed to this stuff.”
“I’ll ask the guys again to be a little more sensitive and knock it off,” Billy offered.
“Too late,” Vanessa replied. “It’s gone on too long. I have a lawyer and I’m suing for hostile work environment.”
Vanessa went ahead with her lawsuit. The firm claimed that what happened to her was “simple teasing, offhand comments and isolated incidents” – and did not rise to the level of harassment.
Did the company win?
No, the company lost.
A judge in a lower court had ruled in favor of the company, saying that the series of incidents and the display of mildly inappropriate visual materials didn’t add up to sufficient evidence of a hostile environment.
But on appeal, a Circuit Court said the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to let a jury decide. “The question of whether the harassment was sufficiently severe of pervasive is quintessentially a question of fact for the jury,” the court said.
Now the firm faces the prospect of an expensive trial in which the plaintiff could regale the jurors with all the gory details. That usually convinces companies to consider a settlement that gets the nightmare behind them – although it’s usually only slightly less expensive than a trial.
Analysis: ’It wasn’t that bad’ won’t fly anymore
The case shows that courts are increasingly reluctant to dismiss cases for failure to allege a sufficiently hostile work environment.
HR pros need to make it crystal clear that the “it wasn’t that bad” defense just isn’t going to cut it in today’s workplace.
Cite: Hoyle v. Freightliner, Inc.