By: Lisanne L. Mikula, Esquire
“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.”
- Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan
Last year, a poll conducted by National Public Radio and Ipsos asked workers to rate potentially objectionable behaviors on a scale ranging from “always inappropriate” to “always appropriate.” Spreading rumors about colleagues’ sex lives surpassed deliberate touching and sexual jokes as the most recognized offense. Nearly 100% of respondents agreed such gossip is inappropriate—yet 39% say they’ve seen it happen at work. It is no surprise that the workplace rumor mill results in wasted time, decreased productivity, and the erosion of workplace morale.
A novel decision recently issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit provides a dire warning about the dangers of unchecked workplace gossip. In that case, a female employee who began working at the employer’s warehouse facility as a low-level clerk was promoted six times in less than two years, ultimately rising to Assistant Operations Manager of the facility. Two weeks after her last promotion, male employees began circulating false rumors that she obtained her position because of a sexual relationship with a high-ranking male manager.
The highest-ranking manager at the facility allegedly participated in spreading the rumor by holding a group meeting where the rumor was discussed. In another meeting, this same high-level manager blamed the female employee for bringing the gossip into the workplace. Approximately one month after the female employee complained to human resources about the rumors and associated conduct, she was terminated.
The terminated female employee asserted sexual harassment and retaliation claims under Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination law, which the federal district court dismissed. On appeal, however, the Fourth Circuit held that the workplace rumor mill created a hostile work environment based on the female employee’s sex and that her termination one month after she complained of the gossip could support a claim for retaliation.
The Fourth Circuit noted that in dismissing the plaintiff’s sex-based discrimination claim, the district court failed to take into account “the sex-based nature of the rumor and its effects.” According to the Fourth Circuit, the complaint “plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception — one that unfortunately still persists — that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And with this double standard, women, but not men, are susceptible to being labelled as ‘sluts’ or worse, prostitutes selling their bodies for gain.”
The fact that a male allegedly started the rumor and those who allegedly spread the rumor were all male further supported the sex-based nature of the gossip. Also, the gossip persisted for more than two months, and a high-ranking employee of the company not only failed to stop the gossip, but engaged in conduct which perpetuated it. These combined factors were sufficient to state a claim of sex-based discrimination.
Compounding matters for the employer is that when the female employee complained about the gossip, not only did the employer fail to take action to stop the conduct, but the employer terminated her shortly thereafter. Accordingly, the former employee could also state a claim for retaliation for having engaged in protected activity under Title VII.
The workplace should be a non-discriminatory environment which provides employees with fair opportunities for advancement and freedom from gossip which can create a hostile work environment. Employees and employers must be mindful of the harm which can result from workplace gossip and take steps to stop the rumor mill before it disrupts the work environment or violates the rights of employees.
The Law Firm of DiOrio & Sereni, LLP is a full-service law firm in Media, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We strive to help people, businesses and institutions throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania solve legal problems – and even prevent legal problems before they occur. To learn more about the full range of our specific practice areas, please visit www.dioriosereni.com or contact Lisanne L. Mikula, Esquire at 610-565-5700 or at [email protected]
 The Fourth Circuit has jurisdiction over Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.