June is upon us, and with June comes controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions. This year, that will include a decision on same-sex marriage. At this time of year, it’s always good to prepare your managers for dealing with coffee-break conversations about these controversial employment-related topics. If they become heated, such conversations can cause hurt feelings. Although those hurt feelings are no big deal from an employment perspective, hostile-work-environment allegations can start with a few words about the latest decision. Employers should be careful to monitor such discussions—especially the ones having to do with rights of same-sex couples or transgender employees.

Some basics about hostile work environment

A hostile work environment occurs when conduct is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person considers it intimidating, hostile, or abusive. In other words, it’s a form harassment.

Unless they are extremely serious, petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents don’t make a workplace hostile. But when the following are severe or pervasive, they can provide a reason for an employee to file a hostile-work-environment claim:

  • Offensive jokes.
  • Slurs.
  • Epithets.
  • Name calling.
  • Physical assaults, threats, or intimidation.
  • Ridicule or mockery.
  • Insults or put-downs.
  • Offensive objects or pictures.
  • Interference with work performance.

And don’t make the mistake of assuming that if a behavior doesn’t appear on the preceding list, it’s acceptable. The ultimate test is whether a reasonable person would consider the behavior intimidating, hostile, or abusive—whatever it may be.

And that reasonable person may not be the person actively harassed, but anobserver of these behaviors.

Prevention Is the Best Solution

To prevent a hostile work environment, employers should—

  1. Set the organizational tone in staff meetings of current employees and in orientation of new employees by emphasizing that unwelcome, harassing conduct will not be tolerated.
  2. Establish an effective way for employees to complain about such behavior.
  3. Provide anti-harassment training to managers and employees. As part of this training, employees should be encouraged to (a) inform the harasser directly that the unwecome conduct should stop and (b) report harassment to management at an early stage to prevent its recurrence.
  4. Take immediate and appropriate action when an employee does complain.

Costly Examples

Here are some recent, costly examples of where employers have not followed this advice: