Some managers are just clueless about how to treat employees. You certainly don’t want to encourage boorish behavior. At the same time, you shouldn’t worry that a relatively harmless verbal blunder will land you on the losing end of a discrimination or harassment lawsuit.
Just make sure your core HR processes are solid—for example, basing promotion decisions on concrete, objective measures such as sales numbers. That way, a supervisor’s Neanderthal attitude can’t be blamed when things don’t turn out the way an employee wanted.
Recent case: Nicole sold pharmaceuticals for Pfizer. After being passed over for two promotions, she sued, alleging sex discrimination and a sexually hostile work environment.
The man who created this environment, she claimed, was a supervisor who commented that working women tend to slack off after getting married and having children. He made that observation when Nicole announced that she was engaged.
But the supervisor in question also behaved unpleasantly to everyone; sometimes, he actually screamed at employees. He was, by all accounts, an equal-opportunity bully who dished out poor treatment to both female and male employees he didn’t like.
The court decided the man’s bluster wasn’t enough to create a sexually hostile work environment. Plus, it was clear that Nicole missed out on promotion because of poor sales numbers. The fact that a supervisor made one sexist comment didn’t override objective measures oflike low sales numbers. The court tossed out her lawsuit. (Bir v. Pfizer, No. 12-0648, 2nd Cir., 2013)
Final note: Of course, you should act to discipline abusive supervisors. Demeaning behavior rarely encourages better workplace performance. And while a sexist comment probably won’t cost you a lawsuit, bullies who aren’t called out often continue to abuse their subordinates.