- A false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion can give rise to liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for sex discrimination, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., No. 18-1206 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019)).
- Evangeline Parker worked for Reema Consulting Services Inc. at a Virginia warehouse, quickly rising through the ranks. She soon learned that some male employees were spreading a rumor that she had slept with a manager to obtain corporate favor and that the highest-ranking manager at the facility had participated in disseminating the story. Parker soon faced "open resentment and disrespect" from many co-workers, including the employees she was supposed to supervise, the court said. One manager even told Parker that he had "great things" planned for her but that he could no longer recommend her for promotions because of the rumor. She was eventually fired and sued, alleging a hostile work environment claim for discrimination because of sex, retaliatory termination and discriminatory termination on the basis that the company fired her without adhering to its three-warning rule. The district court granted the company's motion to dismiss, saying the harassment Parker suffered was based on conduct, not gender, and was not sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to have altered the conditions of Parker's employment because the rumor was only in circulation for a couple of weeks. Parker appealed.
- On appeal, the 4th Circuit reversed the ruling on two of her allegations — the hostile work environment claim for discrimination based on sex and retaliatory termination. The appeals court said that because Parker had plausibly invoked a deeply rooted perception that women, not men, use sex to achieve success, the alleged conduct was gender-based. It also noted that two other circuits, the 3rd and the 7th, have declared that women can base a sex discrimination case on rumors of an affair with the boss. The appeals court also said the allegations in the complaint supported Parker's claim that the harassment was severe, observing that her relationship with her former employer had changed for the worse.
Title VII provides that it is an unlawful employment practice to discharge or discriminate against an employee, among other things, because of the individual's sex or to deprive an employee of employment opportunities because of his or her sex, the 4th Circuit observed in its opinion. An employer can improve compliance with Title VII via manager training and a responsive process that allows employees to come forward without fear of retaliation, Robin Shea, partner at Constangy Brooks, Smith & Prophete, previously told HR Dive.
In this case, Parker filed a sexual harassment complaint with HR about two of the managers. But several weeks later, one complained to HR that Parker was "creating a hostile work environment against him through inappropriate conduct." Parker was told to have no contact with that employee and at a mandatory all-staff meeting to discuss the rumor, the door was slammed in Parker's face and she was locked out, the court said.
Front-line managers are often responsible for discrimination and retaliation claims, experts continue to tell stakeholders. Compliance and anti-bias training are a good "one-two" punch, especially in instances where misconduct seems to be wide-ranging. Research suggests that unconscious bias training can be successful, especially if it's offered with very little faultfinding; when employees accept that everyone has biases, they can be more willing to examine their own.