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Boss behaving badly? Maybe not harassment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employers should certainly strive to make their workplaces as pleasant and harassment-free as possible. But, sometimes supervisors make that almost impossible because they can’t refrain from acting like jerks.

Fortunately, courts expect employees to have relatively thick skins. No judge wants to micromanage the workplace, and behavior that may be crude or obnoxious isn’t usually grounds for a harassment lawsuit.

Recent case: Donald “retired” at age 55 from his sales job at Swedish Match. He did so after having en­­dured what he believed was ageist behavior and same-sex harassment.

The trouble began after a new retail team manager arrived on the scene. He was also an older man, but with a rather abrasive personality. Once, the new manager squeezed one of Donald’s nipples and announced that this was “sexual har­­ass­­ment.” On another occasion, he allegedly took a towel from Donald, rubbed it against his crotch area and gave it back to Donald.

Donald and several other employees complained to higher-ups about the manager’s behavior. The manager received a reprimand and the behavior stopped.

Donald later complained that the same manager made ageist comments, but never reported these to management.

Donald eventually used up his sick, vacation and FMLA leave and then retired. Then he sued, alleging both age discrimination and same sex harassment.

The court dismissed both claims, reasoning that the company never terminated Donald and corrected the alleged sexual harassment when employees complained. Plus, the court said that while the behavior may have been “obnoxious,” it wasn’t same-sex harassment even if the perpe­­trator identified it as sexual har­­assment. It was simply poor be­­havior. Plus, the employer stopped it as soon as it found out what was going on. (Rickard v. Swedish Match North America, No. 13-3729, 8th Cir., 2014)

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