When do N-words and sex jokes NOT create a hostile work environment?


Hopefully, this question doesn’t have you clutching your pearls.

I assume that your business has both an anti-harassment policy and regular training.

But some of your employees are jerks.

Some use foul language, make rude comments, and even cross the line into behavior that may foster a hostile work environment, notwithstanding all your prophylactic efforts to the contrary.

So how your company responds when it learns that an employee made sexual or racist comments to a co-worker is critical.

For example, I recently read an opinion from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The underlying facts are more involved than how I’m about to describe them.

The short of it is that two plaintiffs worked as machine operators. One plaintiff alleged that a co-worker subjected her to sexual harassment by making lewd comments. Both plaintiffs alleged that co-workers subjected them to a racially-charged hostile work environment by using the “n”-word. The plaintiff reported these incidents to management.

What are an employer’s responsibilities when it learns of co-worker harassment?

When a coworker is the harasser, an employer discharges its legal duty if it takes reasonable steps to discover and rectify acts of harassment.

In this case, each time that the plaintiffs reported bad behavior, management responded quickly with discipline ranging from a reprimand to reassignment to a suspension. In other words, the company adequately responded to that information within a reasonable amount of time. Actually, its response was better than “adequate” because the complained-of behavior stopped.

The court did not condone the use of the n-word or other sexually-charged language. But it did emphasize how the employer’s actions were reasonably likely to prevent future harassment.

Hopefully, these situations are few and far between for your business. But, when employees are jerks, a swift employer response that involves taking the complaint seriously, investigation, and appropriate discipline can win a hostile work environment lawsuit.

Or maybe avoid one altogether.

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