Do your managers and supervisors understand that ostracizing an employee can backfire? Do they make diligent efforts to train everyone equally and include everyone in work-related social events? If not, it’s time to remind them.
Simply put, even little things can quickly add up to a hostile environment or sex discrimination case—especially if the workforce was previously heavily skewed in favor of one sex.
Recent case: Wendy Sturm-Sandstrom started working for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department as a temporary clerk but eventually became a full-time deputy sheriff. However, disenchanted with the training she received and the exclusion she felt in a predominately male profession, she quit and sued.
She alleged that the work environment was so dreadful that she had no choice but to quit. That’s known as constructive discharge.
The court hearing her case first said that someone alleging she had been constructively discharged must prove that her employer deliberately created intolerable working conditions in an effort to force her out. That sounds like a tough task.
But then her lawyer went on to describe Sturm-Sandstrom’s working conditions. She said male deputies stopped talking when she walked into a room. She was also allegedly excluded from the Fantasy Football leagues and other social events like campfires. Plus, her co-workers often talked about the events she missed so that she could hear.
More significantly, she said she didn’t get the same training as male deputies. For example, she wasn’t trained on how to operate alcohol breath analysis equipment, nor did she get a camera or evidence locker like the men did.
All this, she said, was a concerted effort by co-workers and to drive her out.
The county tried to argue it couldn’t possibly be guilty of trying to drive a woman out of the deputy sheriff position for one simple reason—it replaced Sturm-Sandstrom with another woman. But the court said that wasn’t enough. After all, that would mean an employer who got a woman to quit—and then realized she was going to sue—could stop the lawsuit simply by hiring another woman.
The court ordered a trial, concluding a jury might very well find that her workplace conditions were intolerable, and that she had been harassed and discriminated against on account of her sex. (Sturm-Sandstrom v. County of Cook, No. 06-3768, DC MN, 2008)
Final notes: Don’t think this case applies only to formerly male-dominated workplaces or positions. It could apply equally well to formerly female-dominated work sites and professions such as nursing.
Bottom line: Make sure everyone welcomes new employees into the workplace, and includes them in work-related social events. That includes extending an open invitation to join golf outings and other events where business is discussed.
Although you can’t completely legislate civility and consideration—or expect everyone to get along—it's dangerous to exclude someone in a way that makes it look like the reason is her membership in a protected class. If employees want to exclude co-workers from after-work private events, tell them to cut the water-cooler pre- and post-party chatter.
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