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Rumors of office affair support sex discrimination claim

Employer missteps incriminating

Posted February 15, 2019

Since the workplace is full of people, and people can do dumb things, dumb things can happen at the workplace, including starting and spreading false rumors of an illicit affair between an employee and a male superior in exchange for promotions — and not handling the situation well. In such situations, employers need to act quickly and effectively, or they could face liability for a sex discrimination claim.

Case in point

Jessica rose through the ranks rather swiftly and soon became supervisor over some of her previous coworkers. About two weeks after Jessica assumed that position, she learned that certain male employees were circulating an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor about her that falsely and maliciously portrayed her as having had a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager, Damian, in order to obtain her management position.

The rumor originated with Alex, another employee, who began working at the company at the same time as Jessica and in the same position. Because of her promotions, however, Jessica soon became Alex’s superior, making him jealous of and ultimately hostile to her achievement.

The situation was not addressed, and the highest-ranking manager at the facility, Bud, participated in spreading the rumor. In a conversation with Damian, Bud asked if his wife would divorce him over the alleged affair. As the rumor spread, Jessica was treated with open resentment and disrespect from many coworkers, including employees she was responsible for supervising, giving rise to in increasingly hostile environment.

Things went from bad to worse for Jessica, when Bud called a meeting, and Jessica and Damian were late. Damian was allowed into the meeting, but Bud slammed the door in Jessica’s face in front of those assembled. The meeting was about the rumor. The next day Jessica met with Bud to talk about the rumor, but Bud blamed her and indicated that he would no longer support any promotions for her. In a subsequent related meeting, Bud lost his temper and screamed at Jessica.

Jessica filed a sexual harassment claim against Bud and Alex with HR. Several weeks later, Alex complained to HR that Jessica was creating a hostile environment through inappropriate conduct. Jessica was told to have no contact with Alex. Supervisors, however, allowed Alex to spend time in Jessica’s work area distracting her reportees and laughing at her. She told her supervisor and HR, but the issue went unaddressed.

Shortly thereafter, Jessica was fired due to Alex’s complaint and her management ability. Not too surprisingly, she sued. The employer tried to argue that the rumor was not gender specific, so it could not be sex discrimination.

While the district court ruled against Jessica, the appeals court reversed and found that since the employer participated in the circulation of the rumor and acted on it by sanctioning Jessica, it was liable. The rumor alleged that Jessica, a female subordinate, had sex with her male superior to obtain her promotion, implying that Jessica used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion. This, the court indicated, invokes a deeply rooted perception — one that unfortunately persists — that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And with this double standard, women, but not men, are susceptible to being labelled a variety of adverse names. While both a man and a woman were involved in the rumor, only the woman was treated negatively. Therefore, it was plausible that Jessica suffered harassment because she was a woman.

Now more than ever, sexual harassment claims need to be taken seriously and handled with diligence. The employer in this case made several missteps that may be used as a guide on what not to do.

Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 18-1206, February 8, 2019

This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

Sexual Harassment TrainingJ. J. Keller's Sexual Harassment Prevention Training helps all employees—including bystanders—address unwanted and unlawful sexual harassment in the workplace and learn how to respond if an incident does occur.


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