Courts of Appeal have uniformly noted that legal protections against sexual harassment are not intended to establish a civility code for the workplace. In order to be actionable, sexual harassment must be severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms or conditions of employment, and it must be based on the sex of the employee.
Whether Equal Opportunity Offensive Conduct Equals a Viable Sexual Harassment Claim
A recent 11th Circuit decision considered in depth a workplace environment filled with incessant, vulgar and generally offensive language and behavior and the query whether ‘equal opportunity’ offensive conduct could serve to establish a viable sexual harassment claim. In Reeves v. C.H.Robinson Worldwide, Inc.,* the female claimant alleged that despite her repeated complaints, her co-workers engaged daily in crude language, vulgar discussions of sexual topics, broadcasting of a crude morning radio show throughout the workplace and referring to customers and other co-workers in vulgar and disparaging terms. Much of the language and behavior was not gender-specific, but it was all generally offensive. The district court dismissed Reeves’ complaint, reasoning that the workplace conduct was not motivated by Reeves’ sex and the derogatory language was not directed at her in particular. Since the language was used and the radio program was played in the presence of all employees, “both men and women were afforded like treatment.”
Reeves appealed. The appellate court reviewed the factual record to note that Reeves’ workplace was filled with generally indiscriminate vulgar conduct, but there was also evidence of offensive conduct which was gender-specific, including the posting of vulgar female photos on screen savers and degrading comments about the anatomy of another female employee. Because of that gender-specific conduct, the court found that Reeves’ case should proceed to be heard by a jury. In short, the court found that Reeves’ description of her workplace showed more than a rough environment-indiscriminately vulgar, profane, and sexual. “Instead, a jury reasonably could find that it was a workplace that exposed Reeves to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex were not exposed.”
The Lesson: Allowing/tolerating vulgar language and behavior in the workplace is bad business. It is unprofessional at best and illegal at worst.
*Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 2010 WL 174074(C.A.11(Ala.)).
Allen & Gooch is providing this legal update for informational purposes only. This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion as to any specific facts or circumstances. You should consult your own attorney concerning your particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have.