It may seem obvious, but all too often managers seem to forget that power disparities in the workplace can turn otherwise innocuous encounters into fodder for a sexual harassment claim. That is how Steelcase, a Michigan-based workplace furnishings manufacturer, incurred years of legal expenses defending a claim of sexual harassment by a former sales manager. She claimed that a regional manager twice held his hand on her shoulder for an extended duration and commented on how she owed him because he had done a lot to get her hired. These events occurred ten months prior to her termination for poor performance, and based on the absence of any allegedly inappropriate conduct in the intervening months, the federal appellate court ultimately upheld the dismissal of her legal claim. But the claim might never have been made were it not for the regional manager’s indiscretion in maintaining an extended hold of her shoulder, a touch that might have been received differently had it been among peers.
It’s not just physical touching that can be problematic. Fry’s Electronics reportedly paid $3.2 million to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation claim a few years ago. According to the EEOC’s press release (and the EEOC regularly issues a press release when it negotiates a settlement), the case revolved around encounters between an assistant store manager, a female sales associate, and the sales associate’s direct manager. The sales associate complained to her direct manager that the assistant store manager sent her frequent, sexually charged text messages and invited her to his house to drink. The sales associate’s direct manager was fired after he reported the complaint.