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In hostile work environment harassment situations, what is meant by the term ‘reasonable person’?

In workplace harassment situations, the perspective of a “reasonable person” is one aspect of the criteria used to determine whether a hostile work environment exists. The reasonable person standard aims to avoid the potential for parties to claim they suffered harassment when most people would not find such instances offensive if they themselves were the subject of such acts. See Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Enforcement Guidance.

The standard is used by both the EEOC and courts. According to the EEOC:

In determining whether harassment is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile environment, the harasser’s conduct should be evaluated from the objective standpoint of a “reasonable person.” Title VII does not serve “as a vehicle for vindicating the petty slights suffered by the hypersensitive.” Zabkowicz v. West Bend Co., 589 F. Supp. 780, 784, 35 EPD ¶ 34, 766 (E.D. Wis. 1984). See also Ross v. Comsat, 34 FEP cases 260, 265 (D. Md. 1984), rev’d on other grounds, 759 F.2d 355 (4th Cir. 1985). Thus, if the challenged conduct would not substantially affect the work environment of a reasonable person, no violation should be found.

The EEOC guidance provides the following example:

Charging Party alleges that her coworker made repeated unwelcome sexual advances toward her. An investigation discloses that the alleged “advances” consisted of invitations to join a group of employees who regularly socialized at dinner after work. The coworker’s invitations, viewed in that context and from the perspective of a reasonable person, would not have created a hostile environment and therefore did not constitute sexual harassment.

A “reasonable person” standard also should be applied to be more basic determination of whether challenged conduct is of a sexual nature. Thus, in the above example, a reasonable person would not consider the co-worker’s invitations sexual in nature, and on that basis as well no violation would be found.

The EEOC cautions, however, that the reasonable person standard should not be applied in a vacuum. Consideration should be given to the context in which the alleged harassment took place. The reasonable person standard should consider the victim’s perspective and not stereotyped notions of acceptable behavior. For example, the EEOC believes that a workplace in which sexual slurs, displays of suggestive pictures and other offensive conduct abound can constitute a hostile work environment even if many people deem it to be harmless or insignificant.

Though the reasonable person standard is most often associated with sexual harassment, the standard has been used in determining race, religion, age, disability and national origin discrimination.



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