One could argue that life, overall, is pretty subjective. Subjectivity can have a valuable place in our business during meetings with the creative team or, even better, during team-bonding happy hours. But when it comes to the law, objectivity is what sets the bar (see what we did there? Yeah, you caught it).

If you’re a person who asks yourself, What would a reasonable person do? while reaching for your fourth slice of the birthday cake that was left in the breakroom, this may come as a surprise. In the eyes of the law, “reasonable” shouldn’t need much debate. In fact, in the court’s eyes, a hypothetical “reasonable” person can be objectively guaranteed to act in a “reasonable” way.

Confused yet? You aren’t the first. The reasonable person standard is a fascinating, albeit a bit confusing, way to determine legal liability and cause. It’s commonly used in civil negligence cases, but in the workplace, it comes into play when a harassment (sexual or otherwise) or discrimination complaint is brought before a jury

So what is the reasonable person standard and how do we determine what is reasonable, anyway? Let’s take a closer look.

Defining the reasonable person standard

One thing is for certain: the reasonable person standard isn’t, from a legal standpoint, there to make you feel like you need to tiptoe around your physical or online workplace. Instead of being in place to intentionally plague you with anxiety, think of the reasonable person standard as a way of ensuring that as long as I’m cool. You’re cool. We’re cool. Then everything will continue to skip along all fine and dandy.

So how do we interpret the reasonable person standard definition as it applies to the workplace? The phrase reasonable person refers to a person of:

  • Average care
  • Average caution
  • And average consideration 

What is the reasonable person standard?

Though not technically a law, it is a standard put in place in court to help eliminate situational bias in civil, negligence, and harassment cases. 

In a workplace scenario that escalated to legal action, a jury may agree that a workplace’s individual culture is situational — like in a petri dish. With this analogy, everything depends on what “culture” has been encouraged to grow.  (See what we did there?)

However, the reasonable person standard ensures that the jury considers the actions of everyone involved in the incident to determine if they acted as a standard, reasonable person would.

What is the reasonable person standard in negligence law?

When you’re injured and take the suit to court, it’s the jury’s job to decide who is liable and who is at fault. Even though we think our own idea of a “reasonable” person is pretty cut and dry, once additional factors come into play, the defense can set out to convince the courtroom of their side of the case.

Variations to the reasonable person standard

Variation #1: Murky facts

Take for example a personal injury case in which a pedestrian was hit by a driver who ran a red light. Seems pretty simple right? A reasonable driver wouldn’t run a red light. 

  • But what if you find out that the pedestrian stepped out onto the road a couple of seconds before the crosswalk light flashed to ‘Walk’? 
  • Or how about if the driver was feeling a bit sleepy at that moment because his doctor prescribed him the wrong dose of a new medication? 

The murkier the facts, the more important it is for the court to look at a reasonable person standard for all individuals involved to come to a decision that is watertight. 

Variation #2: Medical professionals

Another example is in the case of professionals such as doctors and nurses. It is reasonable for a jury to conclude that medical professionals have extensively more medical training and experience than your Average Joe. 

A court will define a reasonable standard as compared to other medical professionals of the same position and practicing circumstances. 

Variation #3: Minors

The reasonable person standard is also modified in the cases of children and minors. A reasonable 6 year old definitely wouldn’t have any qualms about reaching for that fourth piece of cake (wait a minute … how did she sneak into the breakroom in the first place?). 

In court cases, a child is compared to a reasonable standard of other children their own age level.

Determining liability in workplace reasonable person standard harassment cases

In workplace harassment situations, the reasonable person standard helps the court (or preemptive HR team, like you!) to decide if an incident of harassment would be seen as such by any “reasonable” individual. It also sets the precedent that determines if a reasonable person would commit the act in the first place.

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, workplace harassment is unlawful when:

  1. Putting up with the offensive conduct becomes a daily, continuous occurrence, and will presumably remain so for the rest of the victim’s employment. And/or
  2. Harassment is severe or pervasive enough to create a toxic work environment that any reasonable person would consider intimidating or abusive.

The tricky part is determining where the line falls on what is considered a legal liability. Offensive conduct that falls into this category can include:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Slurs
  • Name-calling
  • Physical threats or assaults
  • Intimidation
  • Insults
  • Objects or pictures that are offensive
  • Actions that purposefully interfere with someone’s work performance

However, something that one person (or even a few people) considers annoying (but not harmful) does not garner legal action. So loud chewers, you’re safe (… for now)! The same goes for petty slights and isolated uncomfortable workplace incidents, unless they’re really serious. (Read more into microaggressions).

For example, if the office fantasy football league’s Monday morning tradition of doing a cheer-off next to the coffee maker makes your blood boil, you can certainly chat with them about taking the audio assault outside, but the action itself doesn’t call for legal action. 

Is everyone held to the same reasonable person standard in workplace legal cases?

The reasonable person standard goes a step further in situations involving leadership. Similar to negligence cases involving medical professionals, the court is also tasked with determining whether a person in a management or leadership position should be held to a higher reasonable person standard. 

If yes, they will ask if the way management dealt with an allegation of workplace harassment was done so in a typically reasonable way as compared to how others of their abilities would in the same position.

Changes to workplace harassment training requirements are coming, with Chicago leading the charge in 2023. In a nutshell, they are enforcing:

  • One hour of sexual harassment prevention training to all employees
  • One additional hour of sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors/managers (for a total of two hours), and
  • One additional hour of Bystander Intervention Training for all employees

Luckily, Ethena has already built a Bystander Intervention microlesson to help companies comply with these Chicago- and Illinois-specific changes. Check us out if you need help – we can get you set up in as little as 5 minutes.

How can the reasonable person standard affect your workplace?

According to the U.S. EEOC, an employer can automatically be held liable for harassment by a supervisor, non-supervisory employees, and “non-employees over whom it has control” (such as independent contractors or even customers on the premises) if:

  • The employer knew (or should’ve known) about any occurrence of harassment in which it didn’t take the appropriate action, or failed to take any action at all.
  • Or if, in the case of a supervisor, the supervisor’s victim was fired or walked away from the job, lost out on being hired or promoted, or lost wages due to the supervisor’s actions.

An employer can argue that they were not liable in court if they can prove that they promptly responded to the harassment, tried to take reasonable action against the behavior, and the employee on the receiving end of the harassment did not go along with the preventive or corrective actions put in place by the employer.

So, what can you do to prevent liability in the first place?

Though, as we previously detailed, the reasonable person standard is predominantly seen in workplace harassment cases, the standard has also been used to determine “reasonable” actions for workplace discrimination. The following can all be judged with the reasonable standard:

  • Race
  • Ethnic background
  • Disability
  • Religion 
  • Age discrimination
  • And more

Harassment Prevention is the best way to protect your business, workplace, and employees against harassment and discrimination. At Ethena, we’re all about ensuring that your team is equipped with the tools to make that happen. Here are some steps that your team can use to ensure that the reasonable person standard won’t be needed to determine culpability in your workplace in the future:

1. Take immediate action

When (hopefully isolated) incidents do happen, make sure that leadership immediately takes corrective action. Through this, the entire team will see that leadership is on their side. This builds trust on all fronts and lets potential harassers know that that behavior won’t be tolerated. Make a formal complaint with your HR department and document what you can.

5 D’s of Bystander Intervention, a section of Ethena’s Harassment Prevention course

2. Make it easy to bring harassment and discrimination to light

Harassment thrives in the dark. Keep it from growing out of control by shining light on all your workplace’s physical and digital corners. Set up a complaint process that is both easy to use and doesn’t burden or embarrass the victim. Make sure that the entire team is aware of all resources. Actively (and frequently!) encourage your team to make use of the preventive and corrective resources available to them.

3. Bulk up your workplace community focus with preventative compliance training

Look, of course going to the gym by itself is great for a healthy physique. But at Ethena, we’re here for those extra gains. Blend up that protein shake and get that bulk on, baby! Prepare your team with the best preventative corporate compliance training so employees are fully aware of what exactly is reasonable appropriate behavior for the workplace. 

Great compliance training should also empower victims of harassment and discrimination and bystanders to be their own best first response team. Being a lean, mean, fighting machine is fine … but that extra preventative muscle means that your team is ready for the hard work when trouble shows up ready to rumble. 

Ensure acting “reasonably” is the standard for your workplace with Ethena

At Ethena we create corporate compliance training courses that are *objectively* memorable, and even (gasp) enjoyable. Preparing learners for legal accountability doesn’t just need to be refreshed once per year. Our helpful nudges keep training fresh in learners’ minds so everyone can be trusted to act reasonably, no matter who is judging, on topics such as:

Are you ready to safeguard your team and maintain your workplace’s culture? Request a sample of our Harassment Prevention training to see why Ethena now has over 1.2 million positive ratings. Want to learn more about how Ethena helps HR and employees navigate tricky situations? Talk to a member of our team to learn what makes Ethena the right fit for your workplace.