The objective prong in sexual harassment: What is the standard?

Richard L. Wiener, Trace C. Vardsveen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

In Title VII sexual harassment jurisprudence, U.S. courts use a 2-prong subjective-objective test to determine the viability of a sexual harassment claim: The complainant must show that the employer's conduct was unwelcome and sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment because of the complainant's sex from both the complainant's perspective (subjective prong) and a reasonable person's perspective (objective prong). This online study used a diverse national sample (361 MTurk Community Members) to investigate whether people apply the objective prong in a uniform manner, as the law assumes, or show predictable differences. Participants read a vignette about a female interviewee's allegations of sexual harassment following from severe, mild, or no sexual objectification by a male interviewer during a job interview. The interviewee claimed that she was either harassed or not by the interviewer during the interaction, as well as claiming to enjoy or reject sexualization. Participants made judgments about whether the interviewer's behavior was sexually harassing from the interviewee's and a reasonable person's perspective. Overall, participants' sex and enjoyment of sexualization moderated their judgments of sexual harassment when considering the situation from both points of view, demonstrating that there is no convergence on a unified standard for evaluating whether specific behavior is sexually harassing. Drawing comparisons to obscenity law, we argue that the use of data to form social fact evidence may help decision makers in hostile work environment cases to apply a more uniform understanding of what is hostile and abusive.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)545-557
Number of pages13
JournalLaw and human behavior
Volume42
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018

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Keywords

  • Discrimination
  • Hostile work environment
  • Objectification
  • Sexual harassment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology(all)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Law

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