An employer’s failure to stop a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss in order to obtain a promotion can give rise to liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to a recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc.
Evangeline Parker was fired after complaining that male employees at Reema Consulting’s Virginia-based warehouse spread a false rumor that she was promoted because of a sexual relationship with a high-ranking male manager. The facility’s highest-ranking manager allegedly not only knew of the gossip, but participated in spreading the rumor by discussing it at a group meeting and by blaming Parker for “bringing the rumor into the workplace.”
The District Court initially granted the employer’s motion to dismiss, ruling that although the workplace gossip was “truly offensive,” the rumor’s circulation was not based upon her gender and thus not unlawful under Title VII. The Fourth Circuit disagreed and reversed, holding that because Parker “plausibly involved a deep rooted perception . . . that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success” she adequately pleaded gender-based discrimination. The Court also held that the conduct, as alleged, was sufficiently severe pervasive, as it persisted continuously for approximately two months.
Employers should be aware of their obligations to address potentially unlawful workplace rumors, and should consider training managers and human resources on how to take appropriate steps to stop such rumors without infringing on employees’ rights to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment.