Can an employee successfully sue for harassment before psychological harm is done?

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Teresa’s male boss often insulted her because of her gender and made offensive sexual comments to her. When, in front of her fellow employees, the boss asked Teresa if she had closed a deal with a customer with a promise of sex, Teresa picked up her last paycheck, quit, and sued for sexual harassment in employment.

Teresa’s theory was well settled — that her employer had created a hostile or abusive work atmosphere that constituted sex discrimination. A federal trial court and an appellate court agreed that offensive conduct took place, but they ruled in favor of the employer, holding that since the boss’s actions were not such as to seriously affect Teresa’s psychological well-being, no abusive work environment was created.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that no single factor, such as psychological harm, is essential for proof of a hostile environment. Factors like the frequency and severity of the harassment, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, and its overall effect on an employee’s performance should be considered. If a reasonable person would find that the defendant created a hostile or abusive environment, and the plaintiff herself had the same perception, the plaintiff can prevail.

As the Court put it, federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment “comes into play before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown.”