Don't hesitate to discipline first-time sexual-harassment violators. Even one outrageous comment or act, if severe enough, can make your company liable for fostering a "hostile environment" under Title VII. That's the message a federal appeals court has sent, allowing a case to continue against a company whose president boldly propositioned a female employee.
Courts are usually reluctant to label one isolated incident or stray remark as a full-scale hostile environment. In most cases, employees must prove a pattern of offensive behavior to win in court. In fact, many HR people wrongly believe that conduct must be both "severe and pervasive" to support a hostile-environment claim. Not so. The test is "severe or pervasive", either one will do, both aren't required.
Recent case: Account supervisor Cathey Quantock met with her boss, the company president. In that one meeting, he propositioned her for sex three times: a request for oral sex, a request that she participate in a threesome sex act and that she call him for phone sex. She refused all three.
A week later, he transferred her to another position with the same salary and benefits but different responsibilities. She resigned a month later and sued.
A lower court said the boss's conduct wasn't pervasive enough to create a hostile environment because it happened just once. But a federal appeals court disagreed and sided with Quantock, saying the president's position of authority and the fact that he made an outright sex solicitation was enough to qualify as "severe." (Quantock v. Shared Marketing Services Inc., No. 02-2258, 7th Cir., 2002)
Bottom line: The more severe the incident, the less pervasiveness required to establish a hostile environment. Outright sex-act solicitations, as in this case, could rise to that severity level, while occasional vulgar banter likely would not. Courts also look at whether a one-time incident is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it could interfere with the employee's work performance.