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Beware the high price of foul language: Expensive trials before unsympathetic judges

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

It doesn’t happen often, but now the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a rare unanimous en banc opinion. The judges, without a single dissent, ruled that a woman who quit her job because she couldn’t stand alleged daily sexual harassment can take her case to trial.

The decision includes some important guidelines for what will be considered sexual harassment and what is simply crude and generally offensive behavior—behavior that can’t be the basis for a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Recent case: In 2001, Ingrid Reeves went to work for C.H. Robinson, a shipping company. Reeves was no stranger to the shipping business, having worked on a container ship and in the Merchant Marine. In other words, she was used to being the only woman around a group of boisterous men who may not have the most polished speech.

At C.H. Robinson, Reeves worked as a sales representative. The sales floor was set up in an open area, with a pod of cubicles where Reeves worked with six male colleagues. Reeves claimed that from day one on the job, she heard her co-workers use incessant, vulgar and offensive language. Profane references to sex and bestiality were common. Much of the language did not reference women. But some of it did.

Reeves claimed that women were routinely referred to as bitches, whores and worse. When she spotted a co-worker’s computer screen while walking by another cubicle, she saw a photo of a naked woman with her legs spread apart. She said she heard co-workers refer to other women and female customers as bitches.

All along, she complained to her co-workers and a supervisor, who was also prone to vulgarity. He told her that it was just the way he was, and didn’t change his behavior.

In a final effort to get the conduct to stop, Reeves contacted corporate management. Executives stopped by the facility but never spoke to Reeves personally and never made any changes. That’s when Reeves quit and sued, alleging sexual harassment and sex discrimination.

The company argued that none of the behavior was directed at Reeves and therefore she wasn’t a victim.

The appeals court didn’t buy that argument, reasoning that one does not need to be directly targeted if the behavior generally is offensive to all women. The company’s argument that the sex talk wasn’t specifically targeted at women didn’t work either.

While the court said not every comment on sex is sexual harassment, it was clear that much of the conduct in this case did target women. The justices, for example, examined the origin of the term “bitch” and concluded that there was no way that word could be used when referring to a woman without being offensive. It said the same of the combination of words that otherwise don’t specifically target women. The word “f***ing” may be generally just offensive, but when combined with “bitch” as an adjective, it becomes a word that targets women. The case now goes to trial. (Reeves v. C.H. Robinson, No. 07-10270, 11th Cir., 2010) 

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