Successful women have long been the subject of rumors that promotions or other career advancements were the result of their “sleeping their way to the top.” Earlier this month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) confirmed that an employer’s failure to address such rumors can lead to sexual harassment liability under Title VII.
In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., the plaintiff alleged that as the result of rapid promotions, she became the subject of rumors started by a male colleague that she received the advances through sleeping with her male manager. She claimed that she was blocked from further promotions due to the rumors, and that when she complained about harassment, she was in turn investigated and eventually terminated. She filed suit under Title VII, claiming hostile environment sexual harassment and retaliation.
The district court dismissed the claims on the basis that the alleged conduct was not based on sex. Either a man or a woman could be the subject of such rumors, making the actions gender-neutral. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit had little difficulty reversing this decision and remanding the suit for trial. The court noted the “deeply rooted perception” that in general, women and not men use sex to achieve success at work. As such, the plaintiff’s complaint was based on her sex and is recognizable under Title VII.
This decision points out the need for employers to investigate and if appropriate, intervene when workplace rumors regarding sexual behavior begin to affect the victim’s employment. Employers should send a clear message to all employees that spreading such rumors will not be tolerated, and could lead to termination of employees found to have engaged in this conduct.