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Are Rumors About Sex in the Workplace a Hostile Work Environment

If employees gossip or spread rumors about a co-worker falsely having sex with a supervisor, does that constitute a hostile work environment? At least one federal appellate court says yes, at least if the employer knew about the rumors, participated in spreading the rumors, and disciplined the worker based on the rumor.  Today’s Long Island employment law blog discusses this workplace issue.

In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, the plaintiff was initially hired to a low level warehouse position with the company.  But, in the course of two years, the plaintiff, a female, was promoted several times, eventually to an assistant manager position.  Within weeks of this promotion, male employees began circulating rumors that the plaintiff had a sexual relationship with a high ranking manager, and that she entered into the relationship for the purpose of obtaining the promotions. The rumors started from a male employee who was jealous about the plaintiff’s quick rise to her position.

The plaintiff met with the highest ranking manager at her location to discuss the matter. At the meeting, the manager blamed the plaintiff for “bringing the situation into the workplace,” and warned her that he could not recommend her for any further promotions because of the rumor. He specifically stated she would not progress any higher in the company because of the rumor.

A few days later, the plaintiff and the manager met again. At this meeting, the manager blamed the plaintiff for the rumors and threatened that he could have fired her for “huffing and puffing about this BS rumor.”  The manager allegedly lost his temper at the meeting.

Afterwards, the plaintiff made a sexual harassment complaint against the manager and co-worker. Her co-worker who started the rumor, also made a complaint against the plaintiff.

Ultimately, human resources and management met with the plaintiff. They issued her two written warnings, then terminated her based on insubordination to the manager, and based on the co-worker’s complaint against her.

Parker filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. The District Court, however, did not believe that these circumstances constituted unlawful sex discrimination or retaliation under Title VII because the allegations related to her conduct, not her sex or gender.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit disagreed.  The appellate court determined that the rumor was started because the co-worker was jealous that the plaintiff “used her womanhood” to “seduce” a promotion. The Court was concerned that this allegation implicates a “deeply rooted perception” that women use sex for promotions. Thus, the rumor was a sex based stereotype and so it was illegal under Title VII. Indeed, in a concurring opinion, one judge wrote that this conduct shows that the plaintiff was “treated with less dignity because she is a woman.”

Moreover, the Circuit Court determined that the conduct satisfied Title VII’s requirement that the offensive conduct be severe or pervasive.  The Court found that the conduct preoccupied the plaintiff and management from the time of her last promotion, until her termination, and that management participated in the harassment. Moreover, the harassment was humiliating and interfered with the plaintiff’s work.  Accordingly, the plaintiff adequately showed a hostile work environment.

Finally, the Court determined that the plaintiff adequately showed retaliation. Because the harassment she faced was unlawful, when she complained about it, her complaint was protected under the law and the company could not have taken action against her for making the complaint.

At Famighetti & Weinick PLLC, we often hear from potential clients about similar circumstances concerning false rumors about co-workers having sex with managers.  If you are a victim of a workplace rumor, if you have questions about sexual harassment or a hostile work environment, or if you have questions about the Parker decision, contact one of our employment lawyers at 631-352-0050 or visit our website at http://linycemploymentlaw.com.

sex rumors in the workplace

sex rumors in the workplace

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