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When can nonsexual bullying equal sexual harassment?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,People Management

Issue: Federal sexual harassment laws encompass more than just inappropriate comments and touching.

Risk: Employers can be liable if supervisors are disproportionately hostile to one gender of employees.

Action: This court ruling gives you more reason to stop "raging bull" supervisors in their tracks; they could be more dangerous than you think.

If you think sexual harassment involves only those headline-grabbing actions like groping behind closed doors or demands for sex, you're wrong. The law also says that if your organization tolerates employees who single out co-workers of one gender for abusive (nonsexual) treatment, you could be liable for a sexual harassment lawsuit based on a hostile environment.

Title VII bans discrimination on the basis of gender in the workplace. And that ban encompasses hostile behavior targeted at one gender. In short, sex harassment doesn't have to be sexually charged.

Case in point: Three female office workers sued for sexual harassment, claiming their boss berated them in public and swore at them. The boss reserved his abuse for females; he treated male employees with respect. The court concluded that the boss's bullying, although not sexual in nature, was discrimination based on sex. Had he treated everyone badly, the company would have had a defense. (EEOC, et al., v. NEA, No. 04-35029, 9th Cir., 2005)

Advice: This case gives more incentive to create and enforce a strong policy against all harassment and bullying. Teach supervisors that sexual harassment doesn't have to involve sex to be illegal.

Final point: A handful of states have introduced bills aimed at making all workplace bullying illegal, regardless of the victim's gender, but no states have enacted laws yet.

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