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Check the context: Are those words harassment?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Some words are inherently racist, offensive or discriminatory regardless of the context in which they are spoken. When such words fly in the workplace, courts will almost always conclude the environment was hostile.

Other words, however, require a close look at the context in which they were used. One such term: “bitch.” If used in a context that clearly is aimed at putting down women, the term creates a sexually hostile work environment.

Recent case: Joan Pucino worked for Verizon Communications as a field technician. She was one of just a handful of women in that job classification. There were more than 100 men, including her supervisors.

Pucino claimed she was “constantly” sexually harassed when the men called her names such as “bitch.” Plus, she said Verizon frequently sent her and other female technicians into dangerous neighborhoods alone, something she said never happened to male techs. Pucino also said that she was frequently reprimanded for using public bathrooms instead of what she described as dirty unisex bathrooms.

Finally, she claimed that when she complained to the Verizon hotline about the name-calling and other alleged harassment, someone told her supervisor. She claimed he in turn told her co-workers what she had done and that, as a result, they could expect headquarters to be watching them.

She sued, alleging sexual harassment. Verizon tried to have the case dismissed by arguing that the use of the word “bitch” wasn’t sex based, nor was the treatment she described sexual harassment.

The court refused to say that “bitch” is always offensive. However, it did say that in the context Pucino described, it could have been sexual harassment. It said a jury should decide and ordered a trial. (Pucino, et al., v. Verizon Communications, No. 09-1306, 2nd Cir., 2010)

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