When a work environment becomes toxic, employees may argue, call each other names and otherwise make work life miserable for others. Soon, it could degenerate into bullying. Let that continue, and you could be risking a lawsuit.
That’s because employees can use harassment of others to support their own harassment and hostility claims.
Recent case: Three current and former employees sued Yellow Transportation over alleged harassment and a hostile work environment. They described a dysfunctional workplace full of name-calling, arguments and stupid jokes. It was a generally unpleasant environment.
The three belonged to different protected groups, but each tried to use the harassment aimed at the others’ groups to bolster their individual harassment claims.
For example, a white employee argued that black employees were being harassed and that he should be able to use specific examples of that harassment to prove he worked in a hostile work environment, too.
In the end, the three lost. But the court did say that, in theory, employees can use harassment against other protected groups as proof that they were also harassed if the alleged conduct is similar enough. (Hernandez, et al., v. Yellow Transportation, No. 09-10183, 5th Cir., 2012)
Final note: Smart employers are proactive. They don’t wait for employees to come to HR with harassment complaints. Instead, they regularly conduct spot checks for things like offensive graffiti, suggestive posters and calendars and other indications that the workplace isn’t as dignified as it should be. Inspections are especially important when some work takes place at remote locations.
They also conduct regular anti-harassment training and hold supervisors accountable for workplace problems. While you can’t eliminate all joking, horseplay and other potentially offensive behavior, you can keep it from escalating by paying close attention.