Series of ‘minor’ incidents
can add up to hostile environment

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Cheryl Conner blew away her male co-workers in skills training for her new metal-processing job. The trouble started when she went from the classroom to the shop floor.

The company provided six months more training for male co-workers and placed extra burdens on her. While men worked on machines close to one another, she was assigned to distant equipment. When the machines malfunctioned, male operators were reassigned to other machines while Conner was ordered to mop the floor. In addition, a supervisor made vulgar comments and timed her breaks with a stopwatch.

When she complained to the plant manager about sexual discrimination, he pounded his fist on the table and threatened to fire her if she said such a thing again.

Four months later, she was fired for excessive absenteeism, a weak excuse because male co-workers with worse absentee rates weren't fired. She sued under Title VII, claiming a hostile environment.

While a jury sided with Connor, a district court threw out the decision. The court shrugged off the conduct as simply "bothersome incidents" that, taken separately, didn't rise to the level of severe and pervasive treatment required to prove a hostile environment. It also pointed to the factory's "rugged environment."

On appeal, however, Connor won. The appellate court said these incidents on their own might not create a hostile environment, but a court must consider the totality of them.

In addition, the appeals court flat out rejected the idea that working in a rugged environment gives workers the right to harass. (Conner v. Schrader-Bridgeport International Inc., No. 98-2055, 4th Cir., 2000)

Advice: Don't think it's just overt sexual conduct that will sink you. Any harassing conduct based on an employee's gender, including work assignments and offhand comments, could create a hostile environment. Also, as this case shows, one or two incidents may not push you over the limit, but a court will look at the cumulative effect.

This ruling also puts to rest any notion that the rough-and-tumble nature of the work site somehow lowers the bar on harassing behavior.

Leave a Comment