It remains an unfortunate, though persistent, stereotype in our society that women who advance in the workplace, especially those who do so rapidly and have a male superior, do so not by merit, but rather, because of a sexual relationship with their superior. In other words, they only obtained the position because they are "sleeping with the boss." When such false rumors and gossip persist - and are even advanced by other managers, can they form the basis of a claim for sex discrimination? The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals just determined that they can.
In Parker v. Reema Consulting Servs., Inc., 915 F.3d 297 (4th Cir. 2019), the court addressed the question of whether a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain promotion can give rise to liability under Title VII for discrimination "because of sex." The court answered in the affirmative, particularly when the employer participates in the circulation of the rumor and acts on it by sanctioning the employee, rather than the source of the rumor.
The plaintiff, Parker, began as a low-level clerk and received six promotions in 18 months, ultimately rising to the level of Assistant Operations Manager. Shortly after obtaining the position, Parker learned that certain male employees were circulating a false rumor that she was having a sexual relationship with another manager in order to obtain the position. However, the gossip did not just come from jealous co-workers - the highest ranking manager in the facility participated in spreading it. The rumor continued to circulate throughout the plant, including a complaint from one of the individuals responsible for starting it - and the company responded by disciplining and ultimately terminating Parker. Parker filed a claim for sex discrimination, contending that the false rumor created a hostile work environment that the company failed to address.
The lower court dismissed the claim, finding that the objectionable harassment was directed at Parker because of her conduct, not her sex. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, finding that the conduct at issue struck to the heart of damaging sex stereotypes:
As alleged, the rumor was that Parker, a female subordinate, had sex with her male superior to obtain promotion, implying that Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion. She plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception - one that unfortunately still persists - that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And with this double standard, women, but not men, are susceptible to being labelled as "sluts" or worse, prostitutes selling their bodies for gain.
In short, because "traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace and their sexual behavior stubbornly persist in our society," and "these stereotypes may cause superiors and coworkers to treat women in the workplace differently from men," it is plausibly alleged that Parker suffered harassment because she was a woman.
The court allowed the claim to proceed, finding that the conduct at issue was also sufficiently severe and pervasive to create a hostile work environment.
It is unfortunate that such stereotypes persist in the workplace. Still, they do, and it is important that employers recognize that malicious gossip and false rumors can form the basis of liability, especially if they persist and appear to be sanctioned by the company. Thus, while it can be very difficult to stop rumors and gossip in the workplace, that is no excuse for an employer to ignore it, or, even worse, to further or sanction it. Of course, as with many such issues, one wonders why there is still a need to even have to write about it.
If you have questions about sex discrimination, sexual harassment and the problem of rumors and workplace gossip, contact Attorney Alan E. Seneczko at (262) 560-9696, or [email protected].