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Ninth Circuit Says Explicit Lyrics Can Create Hostile Work Environment

    Client Alerts
  • June 16, 2023

Given the wide availability of quality headphones, you may wonder why employers would still allow employees to play music at work that could annoy co-workers. A recent decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reminds companies that the content of such broadcasts can result in an ugly harassment lawsuit.

In Sharp v. S&S Activewear LLC, the plaintiff worked in a warehouse. She and seven co-workers including one male filed a lawsuit alleging that they were subjected to a hostile and offensive work environment in violation of Title VII. The plaintiffs pointed to sexually demeaning and violent lyrics in rap music played in the warehouse during working hours. The district court dismissed the claim on the basis that male and female employees were equally offended by the music.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the case for trial. The court noted that just because men and women could be offended by workplace conduct, such content can still create a hostile work environment based on sex. Although several men were offended by the music, the lyrics and reactions of other male workers showed that the content could have created a hostile and offensive work environment. The Ninth Circuit cited a number of other federal appellate circuits concluding that similar broadcasts can serve as the basis for a Title VII harassment claim.

Employers that allow employees to play music or other broadcasts in the workplace should monitor the contents to make sure they stay at a PG level. Better still, ban the open playing of music or other broadcasts and require use of headphones absent a safety concern.