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Wrightsman's Psychology and the Legal System 9th Edition

Wrightsman's Psychology and the Legal System (9th Edition)

Book Edition9th Edition
Author(s)Greene, Heilbrun
Types of Victims
Violence, Crime, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
The Psychology of Rape
Sexual Harassment
Chapter 6, Sexual Harassment, CRITICAL THOUGHT QUESTION, Exercise 04
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The Case of Teresa Harris: Sexual Harassment on the Job


Teresa Harris was the rentals manager at Forklift Systems in Nashville. Her boss (the company president) made a number of suggestive and demeaning comments to her. At first she tried to ignore him, and then she confronted him. He promised to stop, but a month later, in public, he asked whether she had slept with a client to get his account. This was the last straw; after working there for two years, Harris quit. She sought relief from the EEOC and the courts, claiming that her boss's behavior had created a hostile workplace. She asked for back wages as part of the litigation.


When she did not receive satisfaction from the lower courts, she brought her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case because different circuit courts had been inconsistent in their decisions in such cases. Some courts had adopted a subjective approach, focusing on the impact of the alleged harassment on the plaintiff. Others, taking a more objective approach, had asked whether a reasonable person would have found the environment abusive. Another question involved the degree of impact. Was it sufficient that the environment interfered with the complainant's work performance, or was it necessary for "psychological injury" to have occurred? Sexual harassment can produce psychological damage—but should plaintiffs be forced to prove that they were psychologically harmed in order to persuade a jury that the sexual harassment has occurred?


The unanimous decision of the Court, announced by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, was in favor of Harris and held that it was not necessary for plaintiffs to prove that they had suffered psychological injuries. The Supreme Court decision listed several criteria by which to decide whether an action constitutes sexual harassment, including the frequency and severity of the behavior, whether the behavior was physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it would unreasonably interfere with an employee's work performance.


Prior to this decision there was controversy about whether to assess potentially harassing behavior from the perspective of a "reasonable man," "reasonable person," or "reasonable victim" (Gutek & O'Connor, 1995; Wiener & Gutek, 1999). Justice O'Connor's opinion suggested that if conduct was not sufficiently severe and pervasive that it created an "objectively hostile" work environment as defined by a reasonable person, then it was not sexual harassment. The Court's decision reflected an intermediate position; harassment was no longer defined solely by the individual doing the harassing, or the individual who was receiving it.




If you had been Justice O'Connor trying to determine whether a workplace environment was "objectively hostile," would you have selected the perspective of "a reasonable man," "a reasonable victim," or "a reasonable person"?

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