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Put a lid on workplace trash talk that demeans women

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers employers in Florida, Alabama  and Georgia, has just expanded employee rights in alleged sexual harassment cases. Relying on race harassment cases as precedent, the court has ruled that sexually explicit language that tends to demean women can be the basis of a sexual harassment and hostile work environment claim even if the language is not aimed at a particular woman.

The case should be a powerful reminder that employers can’t ignore what is happening on the shop floor or in office cubicles. Offensive language, music and the like can create a hostile work environment—and doesn’t have to be ignored by offended employees.

Recent case:
Ingrid Reeves was the only woman working as a transportation sales representative in a C.H. Robinson Worldwide office. She worked in a cubicle near male co-workers.

Reeves claimed that for over three years, she was deluged with sexually explicit talk from her male co-workers, although the talk was never directed at her. Office mates also played a sexually charged radio program that featured frequent talk about women as sexual objects and made females the butt of sexually explicit jokes. The men regularly referred to female customers and co-workers as “bitches” and far worse. Reeves also saw sexually explicit pictures when she passed by other cubicles.

Reeves complained, but the behavior never stopped. Meanwhile, apparently despite the distractions, Reeves earned top performance evaluation scores.

She finally quit, claiming she couldn’t concentrate around all the trash talk. She sued for sexual harassment. The trial court dismissed her case because none of the talk was directed at Reeves.

But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ordered a jury trial. It said the behavior and atmosphere Reeves described could very well be offensive enough to meet the harassment test.

It also said for the first time that a woman need not be the object of sexual talk to sue—it was enough that the environment generally demeaned women. (Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, No. 07-10270, 11th Cir., 2008)

Final note: With the advent of satellite radio and portable MP3 music players, the likelihood of offensive racial and sexual talk has grown exponentially. Because Sirius and XM Satellite Radio programs are not censored, such programming may bring highly offensive material into the workplace. Howard Stern, the shock jock who left the terrestrial radio for Sirius, provides shockingly explicit talk all day. iPods and other music players also allow the ready replay of offensive programs and music.

Now may be a good time to revise your radio and music policy. You can ban outside music altogether—or insist that employees use earphones.

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