Some employers assume that for a hostile environment claim to have merit, the victim must practically have a nervous breakdown. Not so. A strong-willed employee may be able to tolerate a barrage of abuse in good spirits, but may still have a hostile work environment claim.
Here’s why: Harassment that detracts from an employee’s job performance, discourages her from remaining on the job or keeps her from advancing at work all are indications of a hostile environment.
Recent case: Josephine Chapple began having harassment problems as soon as she started work, when a male supervisor said he could see her coming by her breasts. When she complained, she was transferred to a position where the company attorney constantly asked her out on dates. Other males embarrassed her at meetings, insinuating that she was a prostitute. Her complaints only seemed to aggravate the situation.
Asked to rule on a determination of Chapple’s mental state as a result of the alleged harassment, the court said the fact that she didn’t have a nervous breakdown was irrelevant. It was enough that the behavior affected her ability to do her job.
The court sent the case to trial, and a jury will have the last say on whether this workplace was within tolerable limits or was something out of the movie “Animal House.” (Messner v. Fahnestock & Co, No. 1:03-CV-04989, ED NY, 2008)
Final note: Pervasive sexual harassment that exists at multiple levels is hard to eliminate. HR may have to convince someone at the very top to get tough—or else risk a massive lawsuit.
When supervisors and managers at every level make light of or engage in this sort of harassment, it creates an environment in which the behavior is expected. That’s the sort of situation that leads to lawsuits with massive punitive damage awards and much negative publicity.
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