Demanding coffee may be gauche, but is it harassment?

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

In a case that illustrates just how sensitive some employees are to perceived sexual stereotypes, a woman hired to work as a receptionist tried to claim that refusing to serve her male bosses coffee was tantamount to engaging in protected activity. Then she alleged retaliation.

Recent case:
Tamara Klopfenstein applied for a job as a receptionist with National Sales and Supply and got the job. But things started to go wrong almost immediately.

First, she took a co-worker’s invitation to lunch as sexual harassment. Then, she complained about bringing coffee for her supervisors when they asked. At the same time, those supervisors were discussing other problems they had with Klopfenstein’s performance, like when she failed to pass along telephone messages and sometimes put the wrong labels on packages.

But the real trouble began when Klopfenstein saw that the supervisors added a recurring event to her electronic calendar: She was to bring them coffee at 3 p.m. daily.

Klopfenstein fired off an e-mail stating, “I don’t have a problem with getting coffee and/or water for our guests. … I don’t expect to serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee every day at 3:00. If I would have known that when I took the job, I never would have taken the job.”

Presumably, that was the last straw. The supervisors fired Klopfenstein—who then filed a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit. She alleged, among other things, that refusing to make coffee was a protected activity and firing her for refusing to do so was tantamount to retaliation.

The court disagreed. It said that while unfair, serving coffee wasn’t necessarily sex discrimination. The court also said getting coffee didn’t amount to sexual harassment. It was simply a job requirement linked to the position, not the sex of the incumbent.

The court also refused to expand sexual harassment law to include any requirement that employees conform to outdated gender stereotypes as harassment. Finally, the court noted that rude or gauche behavior isn’t necessarily illegal. (Klopfenstein v. National Sales and Supply, No. 07-4004, ED PA, 2008)

Leave a Comment