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Civility helps prevent a hostile environment, but you don’t need to sweat the small stuff

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

You’ve told your first-line supervisors over and over again that crude language, insults and worse have no place in the workplace. But now an employee has filed a complaint, alleging her supervisor’s “insults” have created a hostile work environment.

Handle the complaint as you would any other, by gathering all the facts and talking to all the parties involved. Unless you’re convinced the insults are extremely offensive and aimed at a protected characteristic like race or sex, don’t feel you have to take disciplinary action against the supervisor to prevent a lawsuit. The fact is, most intemperate comments don’t reach the level required to create a hostile work environment.

Your best bet? Explain to both parties that although the workplace should be civil, you’ve concluded race or sex didn’t play a role this time.

Recent case: Joanne Anderson, who is black, sued the U.S. Postal Service over an insult she said her boss leveled at her because of her race or in retaliation for the 17 EEOC complaints she had filed against her employer. What was the insult in question? Her boss allegedly called her “stupid.”

The court dismissed the case, reasoning that no anti-discrimination law creates a civility code, and that name-calling that isn’t directed at a protected characteristic (race, sex, etc.) isn’t grounds for a lawsuit. (Anderson v. Potter, No. 05-72554, ED MI, 2007) 

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