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Court: Isolated risqué comments aren’t enough to create a hostile work environment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Not every inappropriate comment in the workplace is grounds for a lawsuit. Even several isolated comments don’t necessarily make the workplace hostile, especially if they aren’t directed at the complaining employee.

Recent case: Floyd Metcalf sued his employer after he objected to a co-worker’s sexually charged comments and was told the woman wouldn’t be terminated. He also claimed that he suffered retaliation, suddenly being assigned tasks outside his job description that he con­sidered demeaning.

But the comments in question weren’t directed at Metcalf. In fact, they only amounted to the co-worker’s statement to another employee that she had a “wet dream” and wanted to hang a risqué poster in the office.

The court said neither comment was enough to create a hostile work environment. Nor was Metcalf’s objection to the behavior enough to constitute protected activity. Therefore, any “demeaning” assignments would not be considered retaliation. The court dismissed the case. (Metcalf v. Eckerd Youth Alternatives, No. 8:11-CV-566, MD FL, 2011)

Final note: Of course, isolated inappropriate behavior could grow into a full-fledged hostile work environment. That’s why it’s important to stop it dead in its tracks. After all, joking around doesn’t help the work get done. Why risk a real sexual harassment lawsuit if the behavior continues or escalates?

In this case, the employer argued that it couldn’t discipline the woman because she was too valuable an employee. But no employee is too valuable to skip the rules.

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