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Employers Should Not Ignore Workplace Rumors About Employees' Sexual Relationships

3.4.2019

In a recent opinion, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that baseless rumors that a female employee had a sexual relationship with her supervisor could support a sexual harassment claim. Parker v. Reema Consulting Servs., No. 18-1206, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 3965 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019).

The female employee’s male co-workers spread a rumor that she slept with her male boss to obtain promotions. A manager participated in spreading the rumor, discussed it at a staff meeting with other employees, and blamed the employee for “bringing the situation into the workplace” when she tried to discuss her concerns about the rumor. He also told the female employee that “he could no longer recommend her for promotions or higher-level tasks because of the rumor.” The court below granted the employer’s motion to dismiss and held that the “complaint as to the establishment and circulation of this rumor is not based upon her gender, but rather based upon her alleged conduct.” The Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court’s opinion and held that 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.”

If employers become aware of sex-based rumors in the workplace they should be addressed under the company’s sexual harassment policy. It is also important that managers are trained to identify these types of rumors as sexual harassment and to proactively address them. In light of this expanded view of what constitutes sexual harassment and the recent climate surrounding these claims, it is important that employers conduct regular training.

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