Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga or hot yoga as it is colloquially referred, has been the center of several well-publicized sexual harassment lawsuit. As the trial of one former legal adviser’s claim of sexual harassment is now progressing, it gains even more publicity, whether because of the juicy allegations of rape or schadenfreude or a little of both.
The allegations have been very salacious and, if true, paint a picture of a predatory and abusive man. Law 360 reported that his wife testified on Wednesday. The reports of her testimony are fairly shocking as she confirmed that she heard her husband swear at students and called female students prostitutes and bitches. Certainly not what his defense attorneys wanted to hear.
The Choudhurys are also going through a divorce so it is tempting to attribute her testimony to a spouse seeking revenge. However, her testimony was not a full-scale attack on her husband. Instead, although she had to admit that she had heard him use those words during teacher training sessions, she claimed that what he was doing was merely theater and all part of his act. In other words, she tried to rationalize what he said by saying that he did not mean it.
This brings up an interesting point. Under anti-discrimination laws, the alleged harasser’s intent is largely irrelevant. A person does not have to mean to harass someone to be guilty of harassment. This is a point that I make at every training session I do with employees and managers and one that seems to be the most surprising to people.
The way hostile work environments are defined under most anti-discrimination laws is that the conduct is based on membership in a protected class, that the conduct was severe or pervasive, and that the victim perceived and a reasonable person would perceive that a hostile work environment had been created. In short, even where someone was joking or putting on an act, if they engage in conduct that could be considered harassment, it does not matter what they meant.
So, although I think Rajashree Choudhury might have been trying to excuse her husband’s behavior, saying he was joking is not likely to cut it.