Can “teasing” be considered sexual harassment?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The Civil Rights Act does not prohibit “genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex.” A recurring point in the court’s opinions is that “simple teasing,” offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment. Title VII is not a general civility code. 

The court’s tests are designed to filter out complaints attacking “the ordinary tribulations of the workplace, such as the sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing.” It is “clear that conduct must be extreme to amount to a change in the terms and conditions of employment, and the courts of appeals have heeded this view.”

Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment — an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive — is beyond the statute’s scope. That crucial requirement is intended to ensure that courts and juries do not mistake ordinary socializing in the workplace — such as flirtation or male-on-male horseplay — for discriminatory conditions of employment.

Conduct, which a reasonable person would find severely hostile or abusive, given an appropriate common sense sensitivity to social context, clearly will be regarded as sexual harassment. The objective severity of harassment is judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the complainant’s position, considering all the circumstances. Physical contact or touching is not necessary. The critical issue is whether members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed.



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