Employers May Be Held Liable for Workplace Sex Gossip
A federal appeals court has held that false rumors about a female employee sleeping with her male boss for a promotion can subject an employer to liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). FN1
Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to create a severe or pervasive hostile work environment based on sex.FN2 In Parker v. Reema Consulting Inc., a female employee filed a harassment claim against her employer because she was subject to a false rumor that she had sex with a supervisor to get a promotion. The trial court had previously dismissed the case on the basis that the rumor was unrelated to the employee’s gender. The Fourth Circuit reversed, reasoning that the rumor was based on negative stereotypes about women—namely, that “generally women, not men, use sex to achieve results” or advance in the workplace. Because the rumor led to harassment—including the plaintiff having a door slammed in her face, being banned from an all-staff meeting, being humiliated in front of coworkers, and being told she had no future at her company, the Fourth Circuit held that the employee had a valid claim for gender-based hostile work environment and retaliation against her employer.
The prohibition on hostile work environments encompasses a huge variety of workplace (and non-workplace) conduct and statements relating to gender, sex, and sex-based stereotypes. Employers should be cautious that rumors and gossip can quickly turn into discrimination claims and liability. Well thought-out policies and management training can be crucial in minimizing inappropriate workplace conduct and identifying it early to ensure matters are thoroughly investigated and addressed.
FN1: Parker v. Reema Consulting Inc., No. 18-1206, 209 WL 490652 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019). The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from federal courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
FN2: 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a); Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993).