Thursday, February 14, 2019

When the rumor mill creates a sexually hostile work environment

Just in time for Valentine's Day, I bring you the story of a employee rumored to be sleeping with her boss to get a promotion. She wasn't, but the workplace rumor mill sure thought she was.

Evangeline Parker began working for Reema Consulting Services, Inc., as an entry-level clerk. She received six promotions during her first 15 months of employment, ultimately to the position of Assistant Operations Manager.

Two weeks after her final promotion, Parker learned that "certain male employees were circulating … an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor about her," that she had slept with her manager, Demarcus Pickett, to obtain her management promotion. Participation in the rumor mill spread all the way up to the plant's highest level manager, Larry Moppins, who asked Pickett, "You sure your wife ain't divorcing you because you're f--king [Parker]?"

Parker claimed that as the rumors spread, her coworkers, including those she supervised, treated her with "open resentment and disrespect." It culminated in a staff meeting from which Parker was forcibly excluded, during which the rumor was openly discussed.

When Parker later tried to talk to Moppins about the issue, he blamed her for "bringing the situation to the workplace," and told her that "he could no longer recommend her for promotions or higher-level tasks because of the rumor," and that he "would not allow her to advance any further within the company." A follow-up meeting several days later ended with Moppins screaming at Parker.

Thereafter, Parker and Donte Jennings (the man she accused of starting the rumor) filed harassment complaints against each other. In response, Moppins simultaneously issued Parker two written warnings and fired her.

In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, the 4th Circuit held that Parker sufficiently pleaded that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment based on sex.

RCSI argued (and the district court concluded) that the rumors could not support a sexual harassment claim because they had nothing to do with Parker's gender, but instead were about her conduct. The 4th Circuit rejected this argument and reversed the district court:

As alleged, the rumor was that Parker, a female subordinate, had sex with her male superior to obtain promotion, implying that Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion. She plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception — one that unfortunately still persists — that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success.…

In short, because "traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace and their sexual behavior stubbornly persist in our society," and "these stereotypes may cause superiors and coworkers to treat women in the workplace differently from men," it is plausibly alleged that Parker suffered harassment because she was a woman. 

No good ever comes from the workplace rumor mill, especially when the rumors are about an employee sleeping her way to the top. According to one recent poll, 97% of employees report that spreading rumors about a co-worker's sex life is the most inappropriate office behavior.

What can you do to limit the harm caused by workplace gossip, especially that about an employee's sex life? Consider the following 5 suggestions.

  1. Implement a "no-gossip" policy. A year ago I would have told that the NLRB would have serious issues with such a policy as a violation of employees' rights to engage in protected concerted activity by talking about their terms and conditions of employment. Currently, however, the NLRB concludes that no-gossip policies are perfectly legal under its new Boeing rules on facially neutral handbook policies. 

  2. Keep private matters private. If you don't want employees gossiping about their co-workers' private lives, then encourage employees to keep their private lives private. Employees can't gossip about that which they do not know. That said, in the age of social media, when we are all connected with each other 24/7, this goal is increasingly difficult to accomplish.

  3. Set a positive example. The rumors in Parker were bad, but became that much worse when management began participating. If you want your employees to stop gossiping and spreading rumors about each other, set a positive example, and expect all employees to follow suit.

  4. Encourage complaints. Employees need to know that HR and management are receptive to complaints about gossip and rumors. Even if not sex-based, take the complaint, and treat it seriously. This means investigating, and talking to those starting or spreading the rumors to make sure they stop. 

  5. Spread positive news. Is an employee doing a good job? Did he or she go above and beyond? Spread that type of news around the work place. The flip-side of negative rumors are positive stories about employees, customers, and culture. Good news stories will help drown out the negative. 
And, for goodness sake, do not in any way, shape, or form permit employees to suggest that another slept her way to the top, or discipline the victim when she complains.

* Photo by Ben White on Unsplash