It’s difficult to define precisely when inappropriate comments and actions in the workplace cross that invisible line into legally significant territory. We all know that employers have to make sure that the workplace is not hostile. But when, exactly, does “offensive” become “hostile”?
I don’t know. But a recent case illustrates that it has to be pretty bad. Here are some of the things that Ms. Boson, a school counselor, alleged occurred to her while she was working for Manor ISD:
- A co-worker made sexually harassing comments to her, persisting with this when she told him to back off;
- When she reported this to HR, the director accused her of harassing another employee;
- The school’s lead counselor smirked at her and criticized her in front of co-workers;
- An A.P. singled her out during a meeting and called her “not a team player”;
- She was left out of transition meetings and weekly meetings of counselors;
- She was excluded from having a part to play at graduation ceremonies;
- She did not receive the customary step increase that counselors received each year and was treated with “less esteem” by her colleagues.
After Ms. Boson filed suit, alleging that this was a “hostile work environment” the school district asked the court to dismiss the case. The district did not agree with the facts alleged in the suit, but argued that even if they all proved to be true, this did not add up to a hostile work environment. The court agreed with the district on that. Key Quote:
The occasional comments by Boson’s co-workers and superiors disapprovingly alluding to her reports of sexual harassment were not objectively severe, extreme, or frequent so as to permeate the work environment and alter it to the point of its becoming abusive. The alleged change in Boson’s work position and exclusion of her from meetings and graduation duties, even in conjunction with the occasional “harassing” comments, also cannot be said to have created an abusive working environment, especially considering that Boson does not cite any evidence that her work performance suffered as a result. The extent of severity, hostility, and pervasiveness here is minimal, equivalent to the levels previously found insufficient by this and other Texas appellate courts to support a prima facie case.
Case dismissed. The court’s message here: “I’m sure you didn’t like it, but we don’t think it was that bad.” The case is Manor ISD v. Boson, decided by the Texas Court of Appeals for the Third District in Austin on March 29, 2017.
Don’t take that as a license to be rude, insensitive or otherwise a jerk. Be nice.
DAWG BONE: OFFICIAL LEGAL ADVICE: BE NICE.
Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday takes a look at Tool #9!