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Stop harassment by reining in sexual banter

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It’s well worth your while to intervene before relatively harmless banter escalates into a sexual harassment lawsuit. A few stray, sexually oriented comments between co-workers aren’t enough to support a full-blown sexually hostile work environment lawsuit. But you can prevent serious legal trouble by stepping in before it gets out of hand.

Recent case: Adolpho worked for Gucci in New York until he was fired when co-workers complained that he seemed unstable and distracted.

He sued, alleging he had been forced to work in a sexually hostile environment.

His evidence? A supervisor once told him that he (the supervisor) was gay but that “you just don’t know it.” Adolpho said that on another occasion, there was workplace banter about another super­visor’s supposed sexual orientation and nightlife. Plus, a different boss once touched Adolpho’s lower back for a few seconds.

The court said none of the incidents were enough to create a sexually hostile work environment. The conduct in these cases more closely resembled simple teasing or roughhousing among members of the same sex than blatant sexual harassment. It certainly wasn’t enough to support a lawsuit. (Mendez-Nouel v. Gucci America, No. 12-4896, 2nd Cir., 2013)

Final note: Generally, same-sex harassment comes in two varieties. The first is blatant sexual har­­ass­­ment based on sexual de­­sire; the second is sex discrimination based on stereotypical views of male or female behavior.

For example, if a gay supervisor sexually propositions a male subordinate, that can be the basis for a sexual harassment claim. So can constant teasing about effeminate behavior or a woman’s masculine dress. Telling a woman she should dress more like a woman and wear makeup is as problematic as telling a man he should not style his hair or wear a pink shirt.

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