It’s still no surprise to hear occasional rumors that a female employee who rapidly ascends through the ranks in an organization is probably “sleeping her way to the top.” There is no doubt that these kinds of rumors are offensive, but are they evidence of gender-based discrimination?
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently answered in the affirmative in the case of Parker v. Reema Consulting, Inc. The Plaintiff, a woman, began working at a warehouse facility in 2014 and quickly received several promotions. That started the rumor mill going with significant speculation that she was “sleeping her way to the top” and using her gender to obtain her promotions. She also alleged that the rumors were accompanied by other harassing behavior, like taunts, threats, being physically locked out of meetings and finally fired. She sued for gender discrimination and retaliation. The company claimed that rumors that an employee used sex to achieve success is not gender specific and therefore cannot sustain a gender discrimination claim.
In reversing the lower court’s dismissal of her case, the 4th Circuit noted that Plaintiff “plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception-one that unfortunately still persists-that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success." The court also said the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to state a hostile work environment claim.
Employers should note that while it may seem appropriate to ignore rumors that an employee achieved success through sex, if those rumors are pervasive, and especially if they are accompanied by other behavior that negatively impacts the work environment, the employer has a duty to stop the behavior-and the rumors. Employers know that the gender of an employee should never be a factor in the workplace (absent it being a bona fide qualification for a job). Rumors that perpetuate bias or hostility based on gender are as inappropriate in the workplace as any other type of unwanted or negative behavior based on gender.