Although growing in number, sexual harassment complaints by male employees against a female co-worker are still relatively unusual. Last week, in EEOC v. Prospect Airport Services, Inc., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained the legal context in which these cases must be reviewed. The plaintiff was a recent widower who received a series of explicit notes from a married female co-worker who was clearly seeking a romantic and sexual relationship. He initially ignored the notes, but the co-worker persisted to proposition him, directly and through communications involving other employees.
The plaintiff alleged that he repeatedly complained about this behavior to several supervisors, but that they either ignored the complaints or made jokes about it. In reversing a grant of summary judgment for the employer, the Ninth Circuit noted that not all sexual advances made by females to males are welcomed. The court noted a number of personal, religious and other reasons that would result in a male employee viewing such repeated, unwanted advances as hostile and offensive. The Ninth Circuit also concluded that these advances had a significant negative psychological effect on the plaintiff, reinforcing their unwelcomed nature.
While all employees are required to put up with a certain level of romantic inquiry and flirtation in the workplace, the repeated nature of these rejected solicitations clearly crossed the line. When combined with the employer's failure to address this situation, the plaintiff's complaints here were enough to allow a jury to make a determination as to liability.
Employers cannot rely on stereotypes about male-female relationships as a defense to a Title VII claim. Complaints of unwelcomed conduct from any employee with regard to any other employee must be treated seriously, and investigated and handled on a prompt, consistent basis.