It is never easy to predict what conduct a court will consider serious enough to constitute sexual harassment, but telling a subordinate to "get naked" is apparently not enough. A judge of the United States District Court in Boston decided last week that a single comment by a supervisor for a subordinate to "get naked" when he was about to tell her bad news did not rise to the level of sexual harassment. The court explained that while a single incident or comment can sometimes create a sexually hostile work environment, this particular comment was not sufficiently egregious considering the context. The plaintiff continued to speak with the supervisor after the comment was made in a supportive manner.
While it is usually a jury question - and not appropriate for a court to decide prior to trial - whether conduct amounts to sexual harassment, this decision illustrates that there will always be instances when allegations simply are not serious enough. As I tell all of my clients, no one is guaranteed a hassle-free, sanitized workplace. For harassment to be illegal, it must 1) be based on a protected status (gender/sexual, race, ethnicity, etc.), 2) be serious or pervasive, and 3) alter the conditions of employment. A single comment can make a case, but it has to be something outrageous. The outcome of this case does not surprise me at all. (A retaliation claim brought by the same plaintiff in this case was not dismissed.)