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Check severity of harassment allegations when facing hostile environment claim

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Fortunately, courts don’t have the time or inclination to guarantee that every workplace is free of irritations or minor problems. Those can include what some employees may interpret as sexual harassment.

One relatively innocuous pass isn’t usually enough for an employer to lose a case in court.

Recent case: Lauren Palmer, who worked as a secretary for a school district, claimed that when she was going through a divorce, her female principal asked her to go with her to get an ice cream cone.

Palmer claimed that the principal offered to help her through the crisis while licking seductively on the ice cream cone. The principal allegedly added that she could do to Palmer what she was doing to the ice cream.

When Palmer was fired for unrelated reasons (she failed a drug test), she sued, alleging she had been forced to work in a sexually hostile environment.

The court tossed out the case, writing that even if the account Palmer told were true, it wasn’t severe enough to create a hostile work environment. (Palmer v. Cacioppo, et al., No. 5:08-CV-125, ND OH, 2009)

Final note: When reviewing complaints about an allegedly sexually hostile work environment, remember to look at the severity of the allegations. Unless the behavior or environment is severe enough to alter the conditions of employment both objectively (to the average reasonable employee) and subjectively (to the employee complaining), it probably isn’t hostile. Of course, warn everyone involved to stop the behavior so it doesn’t get worse.

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