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Be on guard against sexist hostile environment

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in Human Resources

When we think of a hostile work environment based on sex, we often assume an overtly sexualized workplace. Transgressions such as viewing porn, posting lurid photos on cubicle walls and demanding sexual favors are clearly sexual in nature. But those aren’t the only things that can make an environment sexually hostile.

Employees can launch a claim of hostile environment if they can show they were forced to work in a sexist environment.

Recent case: Dayna Scruggs worked for the Garst Seed Co. as a research technician until her position was eliminated when the company was purchased by another seed company.

That’s when Scruggs filed a hostile work environment lawsuit, alleging she had been forced to work for years under conditions that were intolerable. She said her boss told her he hated “pushy, aggressive women” and that she wasn’t smart enough and looked like a “UPS driver.”

The company argued that none of the comments was overtly sexual in nature. But the court said that comments based on sexist attitudes could also create a hostile environment—and that some of the comments Scruggs said she endured fell into that category. It said they reflected an attitude toward women that they were not as good as men.

Fortunately for the company, the court also concluded that the comments, though sexist, weren’t severe enough to justify a lawsuit. It dismissed the case. (Scruggs v. Garst Seed Company, No. 07-2266, 7th Cir., 2009)

Final note: Note that Scruggs didn’t complain about the environment until it became clear she was going to lose her job. Courts take such timing into consideration when deciding whether the environment was pervasively sexual or sexist.

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