An employee claims she’s witnessed several risque workplace incidents over a period of several years. She sues her employer for sexual harassment. Did she win?
Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.
“Bad news,” said VP Bill Bailey. “Caroline Fitzgerald’s suing us for sex harassment.”
“Well, Caroline was a thorn in our side for a while.” said HR manager Lynn Rondo.
She sighed. “During the four years she worked here, Caroline complained a handful of times that she experienced a few instances of what she called ‘harassment.’”
Lynn pulled out Caroline’s file. “She said she was offended when a manager played a Naughty Santa at the Christmas party one year.
“Another time, a bride-to-be brought a somewhat naughty bachelorette gift to work and showed everyone. And she claimed she knew of other incidents of harassment but wouldn’t tell us.
“We even brought in an outside investigator but Caroline wouldn’t cooperate,” added Lynn.
“Did anyone ever harass her personally?” asked Bill.
“Kind of,” said Lynn. “One manager accidentally copied her on an email where he called Caroline ‘big-breasted’ and ‘mindless.’ We disciplined the manager, of course.
“One day she said she was quitting and wanted severance. We refused, but invited her to stay on board and help us fix the issues. She said no.”
Caroline sued for a hostile work environment and sexual harassment.
Did Lynn’s company win?
Yes, Lynn’s company won. The judge acknowledged that Caroline had witnessed some questionable events. But the key to deciding if she’s been harassed was determining if what she experienced was severe or pervasive.
That wasn’t the case, said the judge – all but one of the incidents she experienced were directed at other workers.
Furthermore, the one incident directed at Caroline — the email from the manager — was a mistake and wasn’t purposely sent to her. It also wasn’t part of a pattern.
Finally, the events in question happened months apart over a four-year period. That wasn’t frequent enough to qualify as ongoing harassment.
When all that was added up, it wasn’t enough to convince the judge that Caroline had been exposed to a severe or pervasive hostile work environment. Case closed.
Analysis: Not so easy to prove
Remember: It takes more than a handful of isolated incidents to qualify as a hostile work environment.
Plus, it’s even harder to prove something like harassment when it’s not directed at the person complaining.
Still, this company spent a boatload of money defending itself in court over office issues officials knew were going on. This ruling is just more confirmation that you have to take harassment complaints seriously – and act on them quickly.
Cite: Brennan v. Townsend & O’Leary Enterprises, Inc.