Participating in sexual banter that was the norm in the “sexualized environment” of Sleep Country mattress stores in British Columbia cost an employee her sexual harassment claim. The company claimed that all of its stores where this employee worked had a “sexualized environment” where “crude banter was the norm,” and the employee herself admitted that she “joked about penis size and sex, along with everyone else” in order “fit in.” The Vancouver Sun said that the company claimed that a culture “had developed whereby sexually explicit banter, jokes and innuendo were considered reasonable social interaction between employees and between employees and managers.”
The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal dismissed her claim of sexual harassment — that an obscene email from a colleague which made a joke about date rape drugs “had crossed a line” – since she too engaged in the ubiquitous crude sexual banter.
Was this result just?
A workplace psychologist quoted by the CBC News cautioned: “Take a zero harm approach. Recognize that people are coming to work to be healthy and be in a healthy environment and to ensure that people are safe. So asking people to refrain from sexual banter, sexual innuendo, talking to people about not doing it, as part of a respectful workplace would be beneficial.”
So what does this mean about the situation of the employee at Sleep Country?
The Sun reported that Canadian researchers who studied the effects of sexual innuendo on employees’ sense of well-being, drug use, and sense of being valued at work noted that “not all sexual behaviour at work is sexual harassment, which is considered unwanted, unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour. Some consider sexual jokes to be fun and part of work camaraderie, they noted. As well as being flattering, many believe sexual talk at work can lead to office romance.”
This quote makes us reconsider our posts about “Broken Windows” (see the last post of 11/3/13) — “what if employers (who, hopefully, adhere to a well-publicized ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards sexual harassment, or any kind of harassment for that matter), actively discouraged, showed disapproval or otherwise rebuked every stray or trivial unwanted comment or act that did not rise to a legally-actionable level? Would this cause a decrease in actionable harassment or a less hostile workplace?”