Fortunately for employers, courts measure a hostile work environment against the “reasonable employee” standard. If a reasonable employee would not find the conduct hostile, then it doesn’t matter how intensely a particular employee reacts to allegedly hostile acts.
The idea behind the standard is to protect employers from exaggerated claims, especially when it is clear the employer took the allegations seriously and moved to prevent further problems.
Recent case: Naketa Malone, who is black, complained that he walked into the men’s room at work and discovered graffiti that was racially insulting. A manager immediately covered over the graffiti.
Months later, Malone claimed he heard about a joke three white co-workers told at the expense of blacks. When he complained, the workers were suspended without pay, in accordance with company policy. Then Malone heard about another white worker referring to a repair job as “n****r rigged.” That employee was also suspended.
Malone claimed the conduct traumatized him, and he never returned to work. He sued, alleging a racially hostile work environment.
The court tossed out his case. It reasoned that a reasonable employee would not feel that the incidents—spread over two years and accompanied by punishment when the culprits were identified—were hostile. (Malone v. Ameren, No. 10-2446, 8th Cir., 2011)
Final note: Make sure someone in HR is authorized to take quick action on things like graffiti. If possible, cover it up or scrub it off within the hour.