Allow it, and you could be the next test case on whether employees have to actually see offensive material in the workplace to create a hostile work environment.

In Patane v. Clark, 508 F.3d 106 (2nd Cir. 2007), a female secretary at Fordham University, Eleanor Patane, complained to her superiors that pornography flickered through her boss’ office window. Patane claimed that despite her complaints about the videos to higher-ups, no one allegedly responded to her complaints. She allegedly saw pornographic videos strewn across her boss’ office floor. She contended that uninvited and unsolicited pornographic images popped up on her computer screen. She opened mail packages that contained pornographic videos that she then had to deliver to her boss. The U.S. Court of Appeals said that these allegations support a claim for hostile work environment.

Patane also alleged that rather than confront the problems, she thought that the university masked them. Patane said that her superiors excluded her from department meetings and that her boss removed virtually all of her secretarial functions. If he wished to communicate with her, he did so only by e-mail. In this case, the court ruled that the exposure was not severe enough to be sexual harassment, but that Patane had a viable claim for retaliation. This case illustrates that every complaint of sexual harassment is a potential future retaliation claim.

How to avoid retaliation lawsuits: 

  • Take complaints seriously. 
  • Let the complainant know that they have a right to complain. 
  • Investigate the situation if it’s necessary. 
  • Read and follow your own sexual harassment policy. 
  • Follow up with the complainant, and tell them what you are going to do about a problem. 
  • If it happens again, tell the complainant to report the problem again. 
  • If the complainant wants to file a complaint, ask him/her to bring it to your attention first.