Is Howard Stern harassing your female employees?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

You may trust your employees to not harass female colleagues. But do you trust Howard Stern?

The growth of XM and Sirius satellite radio service has brought uncensored radio programming into cubicles, warehouses and breakrooms. And as a new court ruling proves, employees who overhear such sexual banter—even if it’s not directed at them—can sue for harassment.

Case in Point: Ingrid Reeves, a transportation sales rep, was the only woman working in an otherwise all-male work area. She complained that she constantly overheard sexually offensive language about women. She was also made to listen to a satellite radio station that featured frequent talk about women as sexual objects. She’d change the channel, but the men would change it back.

The branch manager talked to the male employees, but it never stopped.

Eventually Reeves quit and sued, claiming she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The company argued that Reeves shouldn’t be allowed to bring such a lawsuit because she wasn’t the target. A lower court agreed, saying none of the talk—either from co-workers or the radio—was directed at Reeves.

But an appeals court reversed the ruling and ordered a jury trial. It said “the daily exposure to language and radio programming that are particularly offensive to women—despite the fact that it may not have targeted Reeves specifically” was enough evidence to send the case to a jury. (Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., 11th Cir.)

Lessons learned

1. Monitor employees’ radios. I’ve seen several cases recently in which radio shows or songs trigger a hostile work environment based on gender/sex and race. Radio programming in the workplace should be monitored.

2. Add radios to your policies. Since we are seeing a trend here, consider adding radios to your anti-harassment policy, just like we all did a long time ago when we added and addressed e-mails for the first time.

3. Break “the bubble.” I hate to break your bubble, but employers must realize that male-dominated work environments are not “safe bubbles” or exceptions to sexual harassment claims.
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Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial.

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