A recent Fourth Circuit case decision could have wide-ranging implications for business owners throughout Virginia and should put employers on notice not to take workplace gossip lightly. Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., considers the question of whether a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion can ever give rise to an employer’s liability under Title VII for sex discrimination. 915 F.3d 297 (4th Cir. 2019).
Evangeline Parker was employed by Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (“RCSI”) from December 2014 until May 2016. During that time, she was promoted six times, ultimately promoted to Assistant Operations Manager in March 2016. After Parker received the promotion to Assistant Operations Manager, Donte Jennings, another RCSI employee, started a rumor that Parker was having a sexual relationship with her manager, Demarcus Pickett, in order to get the promotion. The facts indicate that Jennings started the rumor out of jealousy, since he started employment with RCSI at the same time as Parker, in the same position, but Parker became his superior.
A high-ranking manager at the facility participated in spreading the rumor. As the rumor spread, coworkers, including employees under Parker’s supervision, began treating Parker “with open resentment and disrespect.” In April, a staff meeting was called, to which Parker and Pickett arrived a few minutes late. While Pickett was allowed in, Parker was locked out of the meeting after the door was slammed in her face. The false rumor was discussed at the meeting. The next day, Parker arranged a meeting with her manager to discuss the rumor, but she was blamed for “bringing the situation to the workplace” and was informed she wouldn’t be advancing any further within the company because of the rumor.
Parker filed a sexual harassment complaint against Jennings. Several weeks later, Jennings submitted a hostile work environment complaint against Parker. Parker was instructed to have no contact with Jennings in response to his complaint, but similar instructions were not given to Jennings after Parker’s complaint. In May, Parker was terminated.
Parker brought suit against RCSI alleging a hostile work environment based on sex discrimination. The district court dismissed Parker’s complaint finding that since the circulation of the rumor was “not based upon her gender, but rather upon her alleged conduct,” there was no harassment based on gender. The court concluded that the harassment was “based upon false allegations of conduct” by Parker. The court additionally found that the harassment wasn’t severe or pervasive.
However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Parker’s complaint did plausibly allege a hostile work environment based on sex discrimination. In reaching this conclusion, the court found that the district court’s finding and RCSI’s argument didn’t consider all of the allegations of the complaint, “particularly those alleging the sex-based nature of the rumor and its effects, as well as the inferences reasonably taken from those allegations.”
The court noted that the allegations invoked the “sex stereotype” that women, not men, use sex to achieve success. Additionally, plaintiff alleges that males in the workplace started and circulated the false rumor; Parker, as a female, was excluded from the staff meeting for her tardiness, when her male coworker was not; Parker was instructed to have no contact with Jennings, but Jennings did not receive the same instructions; Parker was sanctioned for her complaint of harassment, but Jennings was not sanction for his similar complaint; and Parker was sanctioned because she was named in the rumor, but Pickett, the male named in the rumor, was not.
The court concluded that “because traditional negative stereotypes regarding the relationship between the advancement of women in the workplace and their sexual behavior stubbornly persist in our society, and these stereotypes may cause superiors and coworkers to treat women in the workplace differently from men, it is plausibly alleged that Parker suffered harassment because she was a woman.”
The Fourth Circuit also rejected the district court’s finding that the harassment wasn’t sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment, since the rumor only circulated for a few weeks and only involved “a few slights.” Instead, the Fourth Circuit found that the harassment “was continuous, preoccupying not only Parker, but also management and the employees,” as well as being humiliating and interfering with Parker’s work.
The Takeaways for Employers
This case was decided based on a specific set of facts, and it is unclear what a court would decide under different circumstances. The content of the rumor and management’s reaction are likely to be key factors in a court’s decision. However, this decision should put employers on notice to take workplace gossip seriously and to learn how to handle it appropriately. A few takeaways for employers should be:
- If an employer becomes aware of malicious gossip about an employee, it may have to take steps to end the gossip. More importantly, the employer and management should take no part in spreading the gossip.
- When gossip names both male and female employees, management should take care to ensure all employees are treated similarly when discussing and responding to the gossip.
- Employers may want to consider instituting a policy putting employees on notice that employees found spreading malicious gossip may be subject to discipline.
- Employers should avoid blaming or punishing employees for being named in rumors and certainly should not retaliate against employees for making complaints.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law attorneys at General Counsel, P.C. today at 703-556-0411.