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Employer's failure to stop gossip may constitute sex discrimination


Most employers know that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace dis­crimination and harassment based on race, sex, religion and ethnicity. An employer can be held accountable for failing to investigate and address discrimination and harassment that it knows about or should know about. But many employers might not realize this includes stopping false and malicious rumors about workers from circulating throughout the workplace.

A company in Virginia didn’t realize that and now may end up facing serious legal consequences.

The employer in that case fired a female em­ployee who’d complained that male workers spread a false rumor that she’d been promoted because she slept with a high-ranking supervisor. The senior manager apparently not only knew of the gossip but helped spread it himself by discussing it at a meeting. When the employee filed suit, a federal judge dismissed the claim, describing the gossip as “offensive” but not based on sex and thus not illegal.

But a federal appeals court reversed the decision, finding that the employee could bring her case to a jury. According to the court, the rumor played into stereotypes of women using sex to get ahead, mak­ing this a legitimate sex discrimination claim. The court also pointed out that the rumors persisted for several weeks, making the conduct pervasive enough for the employee to show that the rumors created a “hostile work environment.”

If you’re concerned that your managers aren’t aware of the different types of behavior that can constitute discrimination and harassment, or how to address them when they arise, it’s a good idea to talk to an employment lawyer about how to get your staff properly trained.