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Exposure to Crude Behavior Can Create Hostile Working Environment Even If Not Directed Toward Plaintiff

    Client Alerts
  • January 29, 2010

Some workplaces are cruder than others. Employees play sexually explicit morning radio programs, tell sexual jokes, brag about their own sexual experiences, and use offensive and demeaning language in reference to women. At what point does this behavior create a hostile and working environment for women exposed to this behavior on a daily basis, even when none of this behavior is directed toward them?

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court joined a growing number of federal courts in concluding that even indirect exposure to this type of working environment can rise to the level of sexual harassment under Title VII. In Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., the plaintiff was the sole female employee in her working area. She alleged that her male coworkers continually engaged in profane and demeaning behavior toward women other than herself. After several complaints failed to remedy the situation, she quit and filed suit, claiming constructive discharge under Title VII.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for the employer, and remanded the matter for a jury trial. The court concluded that sex-specific slurs (i.e., "bitch" or "slut") create a hostile working environment for women even when they are not the target of such comments. This language is particularly offensive to women regardless of whether or not they are the subject of the slur.

Employers must put a stop to this type of conduct and language even where there is no complaint, or indication that a particular employee is being targeted. The Reeves court placed special emphasis on the radio programming played in the workplace. Even though the program presumably did not violate FCC decency standards, the alleged degradation of women through discussion of pornography and sexual behavior formed a key basis of its conclusion that the plaintiff had been subjected to a hostile working environment. Although it seems a little paternal, employers may want to pay special attention to what is being played in working areas.