To be actionable, the offensiveness of alleged harassment needs to be either pervasive (that is, happening often) or severe (that is, shocking to the system even if observed only once). In Macias v. Southwest Cheese Co. (10th Cir. 8/24/15) [pdf], a federal appellate discussed the difference in the context of a male employee who exposed himself to a female co-worker.
As to the second element concerning the severity or pervasiveness of the conduct, the district court concluded that the … conduct … was neither severe nor pervasive enough because it transpired over twenty months…. His conduct was more than a mere offensive utterance; it was not only physically threatening and humiliating—if true, it was also criminal, see N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-9-14. The environment was objectively hostile, and Ms. Macias subjectively perceived it to be so, fearing that Mr. Stewart might expose himself to her again or assault her in some way.
Thus, suffice it to say that if an employee exposes himself at work, you have a sexual harassment problem on your hands.
The bigger question from this case, however, isn’t whether actionable sexual harassment occurred, but why this employee kept his job after HR learned about the exposure. Employers, here is your take-away from today’s post. When an employee pulls out his little friend at work, do not hesitate to pull the termination trigger (once you investigate and reasonably confirm that that incident happened). I promise you that the risk from that termination will be far less than the risk from one or more of his co-workers suing you for sexual harassment.