Monday, June 08, 2009

Hostile workplace rules may be narrower than most people think

Lily Garcia has a critical column about workplace HR law in the “Jobs” section, p H1, of the Sunday June 7 Washington Post, about the hostile workplace issue. The column is “How to Deal” and the specific article is “In determining if profanity is legal, there’s no test to swear by,” link here.

The article talks about the “equal harasser defense”, and points out that “hostile” behavior has to result on a deleterious effect for a class protected by law (such as by race -- sexual orientation is protected in some states and communities and countries, so most large corporations include it in their anti-harassment and hostile workplace policies).

I have wondered about a situation like this: suppose a manager blogs at home, and coworkers find the blog with a search engine, and the blog expresses a hostile attitude about a particular race. Could that contribute to a hostile workplace? I wonder. If the manager never mentioned that she had the blog, maybe not (if the blog is never mentioned, even though it is public, there is less of a case that the blog shows a propensity toward future hostile behavior – which is why a few school districts have told teachers “do not mention” if you have personal blogs about anything).

What if the blog simply were potentially objectionable to some people only in an existential sense? For example, the blog opposes affirmative action, which objectively is not hostile, but some people could perceive it to be. One can even draw existential inferences from discussions about “equality” and “second class status” so common now in the gay community in discussions of gay marriage.

I think that these questions are important for bloggers, especially for those with prominent positions in the workplace, to the point that the Human Resources world needs to consider them in developing blogging (and social networking) policies. But the actual threat of litigation, even theoretically, is not is great as many people think, if Garcia’s article is properly understood.

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