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California case questions the definition of "hostile work environment"

Sexual harassment in the workplace is pretty easy to spot -- or is it?

The case of one California woman who recently had the $250,000 awarded to her in her sexual harassment suit thrown out by an appeals court indicates that concepts like "sexual harassment" and "hostile work environment" may be more difficult to understand than people, especially lay people, realize.

The woman worked at a Newport Beach advertising agency for 14 years. In the last years before she resigned in 2005, she saw several e-mails that were derogatory towards women and overheard a male employee refer to women in profane and demeaning terms. Another employee also showed the woman an e-mail in which the same male employee referred to her specifically in derogatory terms.

Fed up with the work environment, the woman quit in January 2005 and sued under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The trial court initially awarded her $250,000 because it found she had been subjected to "severe and pervasive harassment" due to the fact that she was a woman.

However, an appeals court overturned that verdict because the judge did not believe the harassment was "pervasive" and that it was not routine, systematic or generalized. In other words, because the incidents that offended this female worker occurred infrequently, they did not amount to a pattern.

As we mentioned, this case shows that what would be considered sexual harassment and what would not be is not always obvious or clear. Everyday people may think some behavior, like what this woman experienced, amounts to sexual harassment and may be surprised to know that it does not. This is why many people who believe they have been treated inappropriately in the workplace choose to work with attorneys to make sure they stand the best chance possible in court.

Source: Human Resources Bulletin, "Sexual Harassment: What Conduct Creates a Hostile Work Environment?" Jan. 10, 2012

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