Bringing Me Down Slowly: Gradual Harassment in the Workplace


 

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Crossing the Line

In the age of #metoo, it’s a stark truth that many employers don’t understand or respect laws about sexual harassment in the workplace. This truth is even starker in male-dominated fields.

In brash settings, where “locker room talk” is the lingua franca, employers must be aware that the line between okay and offensive is finely drawn, and can be crossed gradually, as seen in a Tennessee construction worker’s recent case. In bringing her claim to trial, Samara Cossairt will argue that the smiles and jokes she exchanged on the job were often a front for the hurt and feelings of inadequacy she started to recognize as her work progressed.

Slow Torture

“At first she was trying to fit in,” writes the court, “but over time [she] found the repeated sexual comments, innuendos, and overtures troubling.” It started small. A supervisor asked her out. Her co-workers would tell tall tales about cheating on their wives. But another supervisor would make crass sexual comments about her in front of co-workers.

Eventually, Cossairt began finding Bible verses on her desk, touting the superiority of men. Her co-workers’ refusal to take orders from her was characterized by one passage: “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over man. She must be silent.” Indeed, she does claim to have suffered in silence, enduring what the Sixth Circuit called a “type of slow torture.”

Stepping on the Brakes

In weighing her harassment claim, the court will apply both an objective and subjective standard. And therein lies the dilemma with her case, and so many harassment cases: she gave little outward indication of the inner turmoil she has since charged. During a deposition, she acknowledged never using the word “stop” when telling a supervisor that his comments about “beating the brakes” off of females (a reference to intercourse) made her uncomfortable.

In disputing Cossairt’s subjective understanding of the harassment she asserts, the construction company is using her own actions against her. After Cossairt left the building company, she shared a Facebook post about how she would miss her co-workers and was grateful for their help. She stayed in touch with some of them. But she also claims to have felt like a “mascot,” and a “sex object,” who wasn’t taken seriously for her work.

Despite the assurances in the company’s anti-harassment policy, Cossairt maintains that she was often told to work out issues on her own. It will be up to a jury to weigh her subjective perception of harassment as severe and pervasive—something the building company alleges she can’t prove from the facts on the record.

An Objective Understanding

Regardless of the outcome in Cossairt’s case, it’s clear the tide of public opinion is shifting away from a black-and-white comprehension of sexual harassment, lending more credence to the sometimes hard-to-prove allegations of victims speaking out. How the law will respond falls ultimately upon courts like the one deciding Cossairt’s case. If she wins or loses, though, perhaps employers’ greatest takeaway should be that, when any employee--regardless of sex--is attempting to “fit in” in the face of lewd banter and macho norms, sometimes the boss needs to be the one to say “stop.”

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