A hostile work environment definition is where an employee feels so intimidated or fearful that they have trouble performing their work or even coming to work. Almost always the employee must fall into a protected class based on their race, color, age, national origin, sex, disability, religion, and now in some cases even sexual orientation. Since the exceptions are few and complicated we will not address them in this article. The fear or intimidation must be more than an offhanded comment. There is a “what would a reasonable person do” standard that is placed on the situation.
A female employee who works in an auto parts store as a counter person helps customers determine which part they need and then either pulls the part from available stock or orders it. This employee has worked in this store for over five years. She is currently twenty-six years old and single. She has always performed well and received normal wage increases matching those of her male coworkers. She gets along well with all her coworkers and her manager.
A new major customer who owns three auto repair shops comes in and signs an exclusive agreement to purchase all their parts from this auto parts store. This was a huge accomplishment for this store manager and will place their store in the top ten of the company which could mean a significant bonus at the end of the year for him.
As the new customer is leaving, he notices the female employee and stops to speak with her in the presences of the manager. He tells her that she is very pretty and he would like to get to know her better, again as the manager stands right beside them. The female explains that she is very busy and not sure if she has time to date right now hoping to gently send a message that she is not interested. The customer then turns to the manager and says wow you don’t train your employees very well in customer service do you? The manager tells the customer that he will do a better job in the future.
Simply ending the story here, it would not meet the definition of sexual harassment or hostile environment. It was one comment and the employee didn’t suffer any loss. A reasonable person would pass the invitation off as a simple request and once turned down the situation ended.
However, if the manager met with the female employee afterwards in private and told the female employee that going on a simple date to help the business was the least, she could have done to help everyone in the company. He ends the conversation by telling her that she better work really hard to earn his respect back.
How about now? Would this meet a hostile work environment definition?
If it doesn’t it is getting really close. The manager’s ending statement could imply that he expected her to go on that date regardless if she wanted to or not and that he may be judging her work in a different way going forward. A reasonable person could feel pressured to either go on the date or suffer consequences.
Now if the following happened next it would surely meet the definition.
The major customer comes in the following week and casually speaks again with the female employee and again suggests they get together on a date. Again, she tells him that she is very busy and does not have time for dating right now. Going forward the manager begins to question the females work and three weeks later she is given a written warning for poor performance.
This now would meet the definition. It could also be sexual harassment but that would be harder to prove. A reasonable person could easily believe that the written warning was directly tied to her not dating the major customer. Even if the female wasn’t written up for poor performance it could still be considered a hostile environment. This is based on the facts that she had a good performance record and she didn’t have any incidents prior to this situation beginning. The only thing that was introduced was the new customer and her declining his request for a date.
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