Rudeness is likely to sneak into the workplace no matter how many civility rules you post. Unless the behavior is clearly abusive or obviously offensive to a protected class, don’t lose too much sleep over a potential lawsuit.
Just make sure you impress on everyone involved that sexually explicit, racially hostile or other clearly offensive language or behavior won’t be tolerated.
Recent case: Luana worked as a farm manager at a Jennie-O Turkey Store farm. In that role, she lived on the farm and was responsible for the care of Jennie-O’s turkeys, which ranged in age from just-hatched to seven weeks old. She generally performed her job well, getting good scores for getting hatchlings to survive to adulthood. She did, however, get some criticism for fuel usage at the farm.
On a hot summer day, Luana wore a sleeveless T-shirt without wearing a bra. She was unconcerned that others could see through the open sleeve holes, as she had undergone a double mastectomy for breast cancer and, in her words, “ha[d] nothing” for anyone to see. Plus, male employees frequently worked shirtless on hot days. Nevertheless, after several male employees “giggled,” her supervisor, who was present that day, commented that she should change her clothing because “[n]obody should have to look at something like that.” The comment offended Luana.
On another occasion, the supervisor came across Luana urinating outside and told her to “pull it up.” She felt her privacy had been invaded.
During the last months of her employment, her relationship with her supervisor deteriorated. She claimed he constantly called her during the day with instructions on what to do, criticized her when she left the farm after her chores for the day were done and generally began treating her poorly and rudely.
Luana was then terminated for several incidents, including not showing up for a meeting and for not reporting the death of several hundred turkeys.
She sued, alleging she had worked in a hostile environment. She cited the comment about her chest scars and her supervisor’s general rudeness plus the urination incident as examples.
The court said none of those incidents or rudeness were enough to create a hostile work environment based on sex. It tossed out the claim. (Pecore v. Jennie-O Turkey Store, No. 13-1676, DC MN, 2014)
Final note: Courts really don’t want to be involved in the day-to-dayof your business. While a judge may think a supervisor’s treatment of an employee and the employer’s apparent acceptance of that treatment is bad management, he or she doesn’t want to tell you how to run your business.
However, if a supervisor crosses the line and makes overtly sexual or racial comments, all bets are off. Smart HR professionals train supervisors to refrain from rude, sarcastic or mildly offensive comments.