When HR finds out a supervisor has acted in a way that could be interpreted as offensive, take immediate action.
That doesn’t necessarily have to include discipline. Instead, remind the supervisor that the behavior—though it doesn’t rise to the level that could be considered harassment—must stop.
Recent case: Margaret Sherrod worked for Prairie View A&M University, where she was director of the Black Foxes Majorette Line. During a return trip from a football game, Sherrod’s boss observed her struggling to handle her personal luggage, two suitcases and a large tote containing uniforms. She had to rent a cart. The supervisor offered no help.
Sherrod then sent her boss an e-mail requesting special equipment for handling luggage on the next trip. He denied her request—and then forwarded the e-mail to another university official. That official then sent the supervisor a text message that read: “New name: SheROD.” The supervisor responded, “and that’s putting it mildly.” He then forwarded the exchange to Sherrod.
Later, Sherrod discovered that some parents and students also knew about the texts, which she considered sexually oriented and offensive.
Sherrod complained to the university provost, who got the men to apologize after they tried to explain they were just trying to joke around. Sherrod sued anyway, alleging sexual harassment.
But the court tossed out her case. It reasoned that while the texts may have been offensive, they were a one-time event that was quickly remedied. (Sherrod v. Prairie View A&M University, et al., No. H-10-1858, SD TX, 2011)
Final note: Make sure sexual harassment training includes a directive to lay off tasteless joking. You never know who may take offense and sue.