Most employers are aware that sexually-related comments in the workplace or requests for sexual favors can form the basis of a harassment action under Title VII. What happens, however, when the comments are sexist in nature, but not sexually related? In a recent case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that a harassment claim can be based on a combination of sexual and sexist behavior. The case, Boumehdi v. Plastag Holdings, LLC, was filed by a female production worker who alleged a series of unwelcomed behavior by her supervisor. While some of the supervisor’s alleged comments involved sexually-related comments about her appearance and habits, much of the claimed abusive behavior involved repeated comments by the supervisor that women had no business being in the workplace. The district court dismissed the complaint on summary judgment, concluding that the supervisor’s conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a hostile working environment under Title VII.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed the decision and sent the case to trial. The court noted that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Oncale decision, harassment does not have to be motivated by sexual desire to violate Title VII. Evidence of hostility toward women in the workplace can also create a hostile working environment based on sex. In the case, neither the sexual or sexist behavior alone may have been enough to constitute actionable harassment. However, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the combination of the two created a sufficiently hostile environment to allow the plaintiff’s allegations to go to trial. Employers’ anti-harassment policies should prohibit both sexual behavior, as well as anti-female (or anti-male) behavior in the workplace.