The ‘reasonable person’ debate: Is harassing behavior in the eye of the beholder?

In a 2013 article, researchers who study the impact of the law on human lives (Wiener, Gervais, Allen, & Marquez cited below) specifically explored the impact of people’s individual perspectives on their ability to consider the reasonable person’s perspective when judging potentially harassing behavior.

What do we mean by the reasonable person? The reasonable person is, according to Merriam-Webster, “a fictional person with an ordinary degree of reason, prudence, care, foresight, or intelligence whose conduct, conclusion, or expectation in relation to a particular circumstance or fact is used as an objective standard by which to measure or determine something (as the existence of negligence).” The reasonable person‘s point of view is considered when an issue of unwanted behavior occurs in a work environment, in order to help determine whether the act should reasonably be considered offensive.

In reading this article, I learned that there is something called the self-reference effect, where humans tend to reach judgments about outside situations by placing themselves inside the role of the ‘experiencer’ in the situation. As humans, we do this naturally – perhaps as an instinctive survival mechanism. However, in theory, this idea would debunk the whole reasonable person test we use to objectively judge issues. How can we consider the reasonable person’s perspective if we are putting our own emotions and values into that role any way? Isn’t that just our perspective then?

The answer is yes. We have a tendency to put ourselves into the shoes of others when predicting how another person experiences something. But that does not mean it’s impossible for us to consider the reasonable-ness of workplace behavior.  After all, we are held to certain expectations and standards in a work environment are we not?Perhaps a helpful way to think about the reasonable person is to instead consider a prudent, or careful, or responsible, or professional point of view.  

Would a prudent/careful/responsible/professional person consider the behavior unwelcome in a work environment?


The first step is knowing where the legal boundaries exist in your context.

Do you (and your team) know what legally defines harassing behavior?


Wiener, R. L., Gervais, S. J., Allen, J., & Marquez, A. (2013). Eye of the beholder: Effects of perspective and sexual objectification on harassment judgments. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law19(2), 206.

Tackling Fear: The first step in preventing hate and discrimination


In the words of the great and honorable Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (The Phantom Menace) One thing Yoda is missing here is the cause of fear, which is often ignorance or a lack of awareness. Naturally, if we do not understand something, we have a tendency to fear it. This is an important instinct we have as animals and it is precisely what has allowed us to continue living on this earth. On the other hand, being human gives us the cognition to learn to prevent the unnecessary and destructive forms of fear – the types of fear that cause us to hate and discriminate and that end up shortening the lives of many here on this same earth.

As a facilitator for Breakview Training, I am proud to be part of an organization which provides insight and education into the more sensitive areas that can, and do, foster hate, discrimination and disrespect. And each time I train someone to see into the values and perspectives of those who seem different than them, I feel the world growing into a slightly more inclusive place for all of us. Sensitivity and diversity trainings are becoming more and more necessary in a world where abundant sources such as the media and polarized politics constantly offer us reasons to fear groups of people. Indeed, without the supplementary information we and other companies provide about what brings us together, I believe we would be figuratively torn apart at the seams as a human culture. Seams are, after all, meant to hold things together, not provide a line for severage. With Breakview, I intend to continue providing support in the areas where are our seams feel the most tension by spreading knowledge and awareness and thereby preventing fears that lead us into human suffering.