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Gossip, sexual harassment and hostile work environments

A recent Fourth Circuit decision reminds employers to be vigilant in preventing sexually hostile work environments in the workplace. Even gossip can lead to such claims.

In this case, the plaintiff alleged that, when she received a series of promotions, her male co-worker started a rumor that she’d had an affair with a manager. She alleged that other co-workers, including males, continued to spread the rumor. She alleged that, as a result of the rumor, she was frozen out of future promotions and meetings.

The trial court dismissed her case saying she had failed to allege this rumor was due to her being a woman and further that she’d failed to allege it was so bad as to be “severe or pervasive” as required for a hostile work environment claim. The Fourth Circuit reversed on both grounds.

First, the Fourth Circuit held that the rumor was precisely due to her gender. It was sexual in nature and, by essentially asserting that she, as a woman, would not have been promoted otherwise, it was also unlawful sex stereotyping.

Thus, the dichotomy that RCSI, as well as the district court, purports to create between harassment “based on gender” and harassment based on “conduct” is not meaningful in this case because the conduct is also alleged to be gender-based. We conclude that, in overlooking this, the district court erred.

Next, the Fourth Circuit held the impact of the rumor was indeed “sever or pervasive” as required to prove a hostile work environment claim. It was more than “a few slights.” It wasn’t mere gossip in that, at points, it allegedly included “physical threatening.” It affected her work and, she claimed, even cost her the job.

Finally, the harassment interfered with Parker’s work. She was blamed for bringing the controversy to the workplace; she was excluded from an all-staff meeting; she was humiliated in front of coworkers; she was adversely affected in her ability to carry out management responsibility over her subordinates; she was restrained in where she could work, being told to stay away from the rumormonger; and she was told she had no future at RCSI because of the rumor. In addition, she alleges that her employment was terminated because of the rumor and, as stated by management, because of the rumormonger’s complaint. In short, RCSI’s management’s entire relationship with Parker, as well as Parker’s employment status, was changed substantially for the worse.

The case is a strong reminder to employers to prevent sexual harassment, even in the form of “mere” gossip. It should be noted though that as the court emphasized the case involved substantially more than what might be called simple gossip. Whether less substantial allegations would have warranted dismissal is for a later case to determine.

Source: Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., case no. 18-1206 (4th Cir. 2/8/19).