Whether a work environment is actually sexually hostile depends on whether that’s how an average person would perceive it. A supersensitive person won’t get to sue for sexual harassment if an ordinary person would brush off the alleged harassment.
That’s true even if that sensitive soul chose to work somewhere she thought would be the least conducive to harassment—such as a church.
Recent case: Carol Wooten worked as the music director for a United Methodist Church—partly, she testified, because she wanted to avoid some of the rough and tumble of what she thought of as the cruder general workforce.
She wasn’t completely sheltered, though. A co-worker placed a photo of a male bodybuilder in her sheet music before a church service. Another time, he left tickets to the Museum of Sex in New York City. She also found a DVD of a PG-13 movie in her computer’s disc drive. She complained, and ultimately the church declined to renew the culprit’s contract.
However, after Wooten was fired for unrelated reasons, she sued over the supposedly hostile environment. She argued that she had chosen to work in a church to avoid such harassment and therefore, the conduct should be strictly judged.
The court disagreed and said the conduct, though insensitive, did not amount to sexual harassment. (Wooten v. Epworth United Methodist Church, No. 1:06-CV-778, MD NC, 2008)
Final note: While the employer won in this case, it did have to spend time and money on a lawsuit. It is far better to take prompt action over even arguably mild incidents—if only to keep the situation from escalating. After all, some harassers may be emboldened when nothing happens after they start harassing a co-worker who is unusually sensitive.