HR Stories Podcast - where the Lesson is in the Story

Dirty Words Matter: Profanity and Hostile Work Environment

December 03, 2020 John Thalheimer and Chuck Simikian, SHRM-SCP Season 1 Episode 7
HR Stories Podcast - where the Lesson is in the Story
Dirty Words Matter: Profanity and Hostile Work Environment
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HR Stories Podcast - where the Lesson is in the Story
Dirty Words Matter: Profanity and Hostile Work Environment
Dec 03, 2020 Season 1 Episode 7
John Thalheimer and Chuck Simikian, SHRM-SCP

Ask any of your employees; co-workers matter. What they do? How they treat you? And what they say? In this episode's story, we learn how Ingrid Reeves's male co-workers created a hostile work environment through the language they used and their lack of concern about how their actions might impact her. 

WARNING!!: Language that would make your Mom blush....seriously, not joking....HR is not pretty sometimes! 

Don't make the same mistake this company did. This episode of HR Stories Podcast is sponsored by www.GetHRHelpNow.com. They can provide consultation, coaching, and training for you and your team....virtually or live in-person.

Have an HR Story to tell? We may feature it in an upcoming Podcast. Email [email protected]

Show Notes Transcript

Ask any of your employees; co-workers matter. What they do? How they treat you? And what they say? In this episode's story, we learn how Ingrid Reeves's male co-workers created a hostile work environment through the language they used and their lack of concern about how their actions might impact her. 

WARNING!!: Language that would make your Mom blush....seriously, not joking....HR is not pretty sometimes! 

Don't make the same mistake this company did. This episode of HR Stories Podcast is sponsored by www.GetHRHelpNow.com. They can provide consultation, coaching, and training for you and your team....virtually or live in-person.

Have an HR Story to tell? We may feature it in an upcoming Podcast. Email [email protected]

John Thalheimer:

Welcome to the HR stories podcast where there is a lesson in every story. If we listen well, stories help us learn and teach us ways to act. Each year, john tall heimer and Chuck Simikian deliver 1000s of seminars around the country business owners, executives and HR professionals discussing the fundamentals of human resources, best legal practices and risk reduction activities for organizations. This podcast allows us to dig deep into the Human Resources experience, and see where businesses go wrong. Each episode we share a different story where a company missed the mark. And then we'll provide recommendations based on our years of working in the Human Resources field. Sit back, listen, learn and act. Welcome to the HR stories Podcast, where there is a lesson in every story.

Chuck Simikian:

Hello, everyone. I'm Chuck Simikian. Welcome to HR stories. podcast. Today's episode is sponsored by the folks at get HR help now.com get HR help now.com our friends at Alliance HR partners. With me today is the master storyteller himself. JOHN Thalheimer. Your storyteller? I

John Thalheimer:

like my promotion.

Chuck Simikian:

Absolutely. Yeah, and if this and the reason he's the master storyteller, if this is your first episode with us, check out some of our other great episodes. But we tell HR stories, we love HR, we've been in HR and we love telling stories. And we're telling you this story so that you can learn and you will not be the subject of our next story. So john, what are we going to tell our viewers today, our viewers, our listeners today?

John Thalheimer:

our listeners? Yeah. And so I think that the the one thing I want people to walk away with really is the title of it right. And it's called words matter, a hostile work environment. And so I will be using language that wouldn't make our moms blush. So this is not gonna be suitable for younger audiences. And so if you're listening in your car with your kids, you may want to skip to the next episode or put on your headsets or something like that. And so just be aware there are going to be some strong language in here. So just be aware of that. But I think it's crucial or essential to tell the story and to tell it in a way that reflects what was happening to our protagonists, Ingrid Reeves in the story, because we can better understand what she was going through in this story. Cool,

Chuck Simikian:

well, I'm ready. I've got my, I've got my thick skin on, and I'm sure I'm gonna blush a little but sometimes HR is not pretty is it?

John Thalheimer:

Now it's not right. And so when I talked to people about their work experience, and I said, Well, what are you gonna miss most about your job? Always, always, they say their co workers, right? Our work environment is really defined by the people with whom we work. If there's a sense of camaraderie and a sense of teamwork, it really makes the job better. I know when I've worked with teams, the team really got well, along well, it was really better for the environment. And so one of the most significant challenges that we're all facing today is that ability to be inclusive all types of individuals. This particular story will take place in a work environment that was dominated by men. So our protagonist today is Ingrid Reese. So she worked as a transportation sales representative at a branch of the shipping company, CH Robinson. And so she was responsible for the sales and operations management for the freight company. She spent most of our time on the phone with customers carriers, truck drivers, and dispatchers. Out of the seven individuals on the sales floor. She was the only woman in fact in the building that she worked in. There was a one other woman who was an executive assistant, and that was it. And so when she started she was a little concerned about how it was and how what the work environment like was going to be but on the third day in her office, her boss was talking to a customer from Japan. and Mrs. Reeves noticed that her boss's voice was growing with frustration. He was getting agitated. He finally put the customer on hold and said directly to Mrs. Reeves. Do me a favor. Talk to that stupid bitch on line four.

Chuck Simikian:

Oh, my Okay. Now let's wow

John Thalheimer:

this is Reeves had experience a couple years she worked in the merchant marine says she was used to that course language. But she also knew that if she didn't address it immediately, it was only going to get worse. So after the phone call, she caught her boss's head the moment I talked to you about something. She explained to him that that language made her very uncomfortable. And so he did apologize, but said This is just the way I am. You will just have to learn to ignore me. Hmm, okay, so Mrs. Reeves ended up working for ch Robinson's for about three years now during that time she described the atmosphere of one frequently filled with crude language conduct and behaviors. Her co workers would regularly refer to women as bitches and whores. Now, what she said she was pretty clear about this, they didn't refer to her as much as in a horror horror, but as to women in general. And then they would use curse words such as fucker and fucking asshole, a fucking idiot with with or commonplace or coworkers enjoyed listening to a crude Morning Show, who had a shock jock on the radio who regularly discussed women anatomy perverse bikini contest, and discussed outwardly people having sex. So she made numerous attempts, right, she didn't just let this go on. She talked to her co workers, she sent them an email saying that their language and behaviors were offensive to her. But most of her co workers just ignore, ignore her. In fact, one co worker told her Listen, tomorrow, you're just better bring your earplugs because it's going to be a lot of the same. So in February of her second year, she was a little frustrated. So she ended up bringing in her own radio to drown out her co workers comments, and the other office radio, and return her supervisor emailed her to stop playing her radio. She responded to him with a list of complaints about the atmosphere and park. In fact, she sent an email to him about those complaints, and then how it made it hard for her to do her job. The supervisor said that he would switch the radio to less offensive program so they wouldn't have them listen to the shock jock. However, two months later, Miss Reed's turn down the radio because of the foul language. her boss literally called from his office, hey, turn that up, I want to be able to hear it. Because finally she got tired of trying to get through her boss, she reached out to corporate office. And she talked to two people. She talked to the director of branch operations, Molly Dubois, and the vice presidents of operations. And so in the conversation, she said, Look, this is sexually explicit language that they're using in the office and I have to listen to this radio show. And so finally, the Vice President said, You know what, the next time I'm out there, let's meet I want to meet with you. When he came out the next time, he completely ignored her and never addressed her issues. So in the end, she just walked away. She walked away, and ended up suing the company for sexual harassment.

Chuck Simikian:

Wow.

John Thalheimer:

Yeah. So Chuck, what does title seven say? The definition of a hostile work environment is?

Chuck Simikian:

Sure. So overall, a hostile work environment is is could be harassment. But, john, I just want to make sure we're clear that harassment as far as unwelcome conduct, let's say based on race, color religion, and in this case, sex, sexual harassment could be unlawful. If it becomes a condition of continued employment, or in this case, yeah, there if it's severe and pervasive is what they use enough to create a work environment, that a reasonable person and I have to tell you, just from what you've told me, I would have to say, Yeah, I consider it could be considered intimidating, hostile, or abusive. And that sounds like what you're describing to me right now.

John Thalheimer:

Yeah, I mean, obviously, in this story, her co workers work, I mean, consistently. And so when you get into the details of the story, they would literally every phone call, they had every conversation they had, the F bomb was dropped other curse words, they would every woman they talked about outside the office, or other people they were talking to as a bench or a whore. And so every day, she had to go into work and listen to that. And there was nowhere for her to go. It wasn't like she could go into her own office, close the door and not hear it. They were set up in cubicles, and so she could hear literally what was going on in each one of those things. And you can just imagine what that felt like her.

Chuck Simikian:

Yeah. And when you're saying a lot of that the EEOC also talks about they use the term and I'm pretty sure it's it's it's it's petty slights, I think it's the term so a slutty slights or noises isolated incidents. Unless they're really serious, but those like for example, the boss or the someone using a term calling her the bitch, right? she addressed it if it doesn't happen again. That's not something that's going to rise to the level of Ebola, Ebola, gout, illegal, illegal illegality, let's say. And in fact, not necessarily the the, the profanity, that may not necessarily be illegal overall. However, if the profanity is always directed at a person based on their race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, that type of thing. Now we have a problem.

John Thalheimer:

So let's say let's say I'm in an office, right, and I'm hanging out, we're in office, and I hear somebody in the other cubicle, go yell, son of a bitch, they lost that truck. Would that be considered sexual harassment?

Chuck Simikian:

No, no, there could be. There could be someone that's offended by that language. But and I don't have any statistics with me right now. But I have heard where courts are taking up the profanity in the workplace. And there are, they're looking at saying, well, that might be protected speech, in some circumstances. So what you're describing there's, there's so many things intertwining. But I can't wait to hear what ended up happening with Ms. Reeves. And she actually sued. The other thing I want to ask you. And as I'm, as I'm thinking this and folks, once again, if this is your first story with us, you should know, john doesn't tell me the story ahead of time. That's part of our stick. Yeah, he he springs it upon me. So that's why you might think, Well, why doesn't Chuck have all the statistics in front of them? That's the reason. So I have to ask, she's terminated. But this company, did they have a, a reporting process, you see if a company has a reporting process, she's aware of it, but she doesn't take advantage of that, especially if they had gone out and even trained their employees trained their managers, even if the managers didn't do anything, didn't do it correctly. But she didn't have a reporting process to follow through to human resources. She may not have as much of a leg to stand on her case gets just a little weaker. Was there any indication on that in this story? As far

John Thalheimer:

as so the CH Robinson did have a very clear anti harassment policy. Okay. Okay. So she was able to use that and address it to it. I didn't find anything that she said, Well, there wasn't a way to address it. That was That wasn't in part of the complaint. And she, and so ch Robinson has numerous offices across the United States, right? They have a corporate office, and then they have, and she was in one of the offices, I can't remember what state it was in, but she was in one of the offices. And, and so she reported to the general manager, her boss, and her boss was the one part of the group that was, was doing this to her right. And so she finally reached out to human resources and up to the vice president. But then they didn't do anything. Right. And so that's where she, they're not gonna do anything. So I'm leaving. So she didn't get terminated, she laughed. And so when she laughed, she was like, this is ridiculous, and I think started having conversations with people and then reached out and sued the company. Right. And so one of the things I think we people have to understand is the law does allow us to leave the company and file a lawsuit. In fact, in this case, it wasn't until almost two years later. So Chuck, is there a statute of limitation on filing sexual discrimination? lawsuits?

Chuck Simikian:

Wow. Okay, so now, you know, federally, yes, there is it's 180 days, and some states have an agreement with the with the federal government where it could be extended, I think it's 360 degrees, 60 days, 360 degrees, three to 60 days. Some states might have a have a statute of limitations. beyond that. So let's say even though she couldn't sue them federally, maybe in certain states, she could sue them within the state under a particular state law, but two years. Wow. Was she able to get anywhere with that?

John Thalheimer:

Yeah, she won. Oh, wow. Yeah. So she wanted and it was in there. And I don't remember if she, how she did it. She probably did it in the state, whatever that state was. And so I think that's something that we have to pay attention to. I know in California, it's longer And some other states around the country, it's longer in there as well.

Chuck Simikian:

Sure. And it's it's 180 days from the most recent incident of harassment. Okay, just so we're clear on that. Yeah.

John Thalheimer:

And so I mean, again, you need to address it as soon as possible. If you're an employee, you should address it as soon as possible. So you can fall into that. there for sure. And so, Chuck wasn't beneficial that Miss Reeves addressed these issues with her co workers and supervisors and did it in writing.

Chuck Simikian:

Is that a leading question? Yes. Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. Document document document. I tell companies, I tell HR managers, you need to document every situation. And I will tell you, I have friends that run into situations at their companies. And I give them the same counsel, send it in an email, send it in a registered letter, definitely documented. So she was able to prove without a doubt that she had addressed these issues. I love that.

John Thalheimer:

And so this, of course, went all the way up to the Supreme Court, or the district court. And so the original court when they looked at the offensive conduct, what they said was it was not motivated by recess, because of the derogatory language in the office was not directed to her in particular, why do you think that's important? Why Why were they trying to say that

Chuck Simikian:

they're probably trying to dilute it just going back to what I had said before, sometimes creating a hostile work environment. Yeah, I run into people throughout my career, they'll come in, they'll say, this is a hostile work environment, my boss is a jerk. Well, you know what, your boss is a jerk, really, to everyone, not just to you, because of your age, because of your race. He's kind of mean to everyone. And so that's probably what they were saying is that, look, this is just we talked to everyone like this, we talk about everyone like this. And we don't single out women. We don't single out people with certain ages, disabilities, we deal with everyone. And so they were basically trying to blow smoke, I would call it

John Thalheimer:

right. Yeah. I mean, when the court believed it, I mean, the original court believed it. But then when it got to the appeals court, it got dropped off, right. And they said it there because of right. And so the language in title seven says, because of the sex because of sex. And so when you look at that, you could see where this was discriminatory in a hostile work environment, for sure. Right. There's no doubt in any of our minds when we read this, that this was a hostile work environment. And to put up with that, it's gonna impact your job, for sure.

Chuck Simikian:

Exactly, absolutely. So what, what ultimately ended up happening,

John Thalheimer:

so she won, and the highest court she won, and I don't have the figures, they weren't released to us. So we don't really know how much but again, it was an agreement, and they did all that kind of stuff. And so the company needed to go back and put in training in places to make sure that these things didn't happen.

Chuck Simikian:

Yeah, that's true. You know, folks, I'm going to tell you, this managers, owners of companies, HR, you've got to train your managers, you've got to train them to spot issues. Now, in this case, this wasn't a hard one to spot, actually. But once an issue is brought forward, you have to train your folks to take it forward until the end. You know, I was reading a story the other day, there's a group called menards, I guess it's a like in home improvement place. And they had a female employee that was having sexual harassment problems, also one of their locations in Michigan. And even though there were the manager of the store, had numerous complaints, because the assistant manager was sending this lady pornographic messages, all kinds of stuff, even though they they failed to take action for over a year and a half after the first complaint was made, and they pretty much tried to bury it. Then it wasn't until the employee went to HR and complained, then it became a big deal. Once again, your managers have got to be trained and retrained and reminded over and over that they have to surface those issues. So that's my two cents on it.

John Thalheimer:

You know, I think that's great. I was trying to think of you know, I we had a situation here in Tennessee. Where there was a Auto Parts company manufacturer, and two ladies on the line. Boss was harassing them. They complain, told him to stop, he didn't stop, they went to the general manager and HR told them about it and nothing happened, nothing changed. And so then they finally went to the EEOC and said, Look, this is happening, somebody needs to stop this, right. And so I'm always reminded is, if we can stop that we can understand the complaint and fix it within the house, right within our building is going to be in a much better location than if we allows it out. Right. And so a, the only people that go to the EEOC, or the Department of Labor or OSHA, are disgruntled employees, right? are good employees aren't going to go there. It's going to be a disgruntled one. And so we got to make sure that we're giving them answers. And it's okay to say, no, we're not going to do anything about that because of blah, blah, blah. But you have to back that up with this is why we're not going to do anything. Or if we're not going to address it this is we can't be like, you know what, we will work on that and then never do anything. Because that are never get back to that person. And you don't have to go back and say, Oh, yeah, we got that we can go back to them and say, Yep, we investigated, we found out there was an issue, we have addressed it, please let us know if anything else has happened. That's fine. And they're going to basically see if that person's behavior has changed. And if it hasn't, then they're going to go outside the house.

Chuck Simikian:

Yeah. JOHN, what are the final thoughts you have on today's story? As we wrap things up?

John Thalheimer:

Yeah. I mean, it's such a good story. But I do think it's something that I hopefully, doesn't happen very often. But I know there's a thinner gray line there. Right? And so playing the radio with a shock jock. Well, what if everyone seems comfortable with that? That's where I think unfortunately, as HR we walk through, and we see that we need to stop it. I had somebody in one of my training classes once, and we were talking about sexual harassment. And she ran it was an automatic body company, and she had eight service technicians. And she said, You know, every one of those eight service technicians has a pinup calendar in their toolbox. Absolutely. Is that sexual harassment? And so I turned to her and I'm like, Well, how does that make you feel? And she goes, I don't like it. Right? It doesn't, it doesn't make me feel good. And I'm like, well, then it's sexual harassment, you need to do something about that. Right? And so I didn't talk to her afterwards. But when she left, we had a little conversation, but she was, well, I'm gonna go back tomorrow, and tell them they need to remove all those things. And so I think it's really important that we look at this, and it's always is a reasonable person feel that that's harassment. So is your employer reasonable person, and it's probably harassment,

Chuck Simikian:

right. And I'm going to wrap up by just throwing out that I grew up when I was 1516 1718 years old, working in a car dealership, and I was the car jockey. I worked with the mechanics, change tires, drive cars and drive cars out, we were changing snow tires all the time, twice a year, there's a big deal. Those mechanics and granted, this was the 70s. But the snap on tool girl calendar would come out every year. And these are women holding tools in a scantily clad in a suggestive manner. And they would have these things up, they'd have nude pictures in their toolboxes, you don't see that any anymore. So folks, if you see these things, and it does go both ways, I had someone in my class A couple of months ago, they said that they had to talk to someone that had it was a it was an insurance. It was a doctor's office, and the insurance lady that everyone has to talk to, on their way out, had a picture of scantily clad firemen. And they asked her to take it down. And she was offended. Because she said you don't like firemen. These are our heroes. And like, they were like, no, you're missing the point. And I'm like, exactly. You did the right thing. JOHN, can I ask you another question about this story? As we wrap up, because I'm going to give a point here. The you're saying that Ms. Reeves, she complained. Correct. But she never actually did she make it to HR or did she not she finally

John Thalheimer:

in the end, she made it to HR?

Chuck Simikian:

Right. And then HR did not do anything or and

John Thalheimer:

they had scheduled a meeting with her to meet with the vice president of the company when they were when the vice president was doing his tour. Right. He was coming out to that office. And it never happened.

Chuck Simikian:

Yeah, so folks. prompt investigation, prop or interaction there is no Oh, I got this call. Well, we'll be out there next week. No, no. I got this. Call, I'll be there the next day, I'm contacting that employee. And just that action that intentional action, promptness could have saved this company a lot of money and hassle. So that's my point of the day.

John Thalheimer:

All right. Thanks, Anna. That's great. Yeah, I think it's a good story for everyone to kind of think about that visual aspect in the words and how words in the workplace matter.

Chuck Simikian:

Absolutely. Alright folks, thanks for joining us. Look for our next story coming out soon once again. Today's episode is sponsored by our folks at get HR help. now.com Thanks, everyone. And thank you, john.

John Thalheimer:

Thank you, Chuck. Thank you for listening to HR stories podcast. The material presented in this podcast is for informational purposes only. Chuck and john always recommend using the employment lawyer to handle any legal HR issues. We do our best to double check sources. Make sure the information we are providing is accurate. We may eliminate or embellish without changing the basic narrative to make the story easier to understand. In certain circumstances, we may change in identifying information to protect the innocent. If you have any questions, please reach out. Reach out to us at help at HR stories podcast calm. Thank you for listening to the HR stories Podcast, where there is a lesson in every story.