In a recent case (Parker v. Reema Consulting Services), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that employers may be liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for failing to effectively address and stop gossip and rumors of an alleged sexual relationship between a female employee and a male supervisor.
Evangeline Parker began working for Reema Consulting as an entry level clerk, in December 2014. During her employment with the company she was promoted six times with her final role as Assistant Operations Manager being awarded in March 2016. After her last promotion to Assistant Operations Manager, vicious rumors started circulating that Parker was afforded her position because she had a sexual relationship with a high-ranking male manager.
The rumors were further exacerbated when the high-ranking manager held a meeting with a group of employees about the rumor. He even went so far as to blame Parker for bringing the rumors to the workplace.
A month after Parker had complained to Human Resources about the vicious rumors and the managers behavior, her employment was terminated. Parker later filed a lawsuit claiming sexual harassment and retaliation claims under Title VII.
The Court of Appeals found that the alleged hostile work environment was enough to justify Parker’s claims; thereby reversing the lower court’s previous dismissal of this lawsuit.
The Court believed that the “the sex-based nature of the rumor and its effects” created a hostile work environment for Parker. This belief was supported by several factors.
First, the Court found that the rumors about Parker “plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception — one that unfortunately still persists — that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And with this double standard, women, but not men, are susceptible to being labeled as ‘sluts’ or worse, prostitutes selling their bodies for gain.”
Second, the Court found that the alleged harassment reported by Parker was in fact severe and pervasive enough based on the behavior lasting approximately two months. Because the claim met the elements of sexual harassment, Parker’s complaint was protected activity. Therefore, they also reversed the ruling on the retaliation claim.
Employer Take Away
For years the pervasive ideology regarding the treatment of others has been, “Treat others the way you want to be treated”.
However, as the Federal Appeals Court has proved, this has evolved to, “Treat others the way they WANT to be treated.”
Frivolous accusations aside, it is incumbent on employers to exercise due diligence to protect the dignity and concerns of all under their employ.
As a result, all accusations should be investigated and addressed with the presumption of true merit until it can be significantly and thoroughly determined the accusation is unfounded. This due diligence will serve as protection in the event of future litigation and at a minimum serve to foster a sense of validation and dignity in all employees in an organization.