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Is A Rumor A Woman Slept Her Way to the Top Sex Discrimination?

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled spreading rumors that a woman slept her way to the top is sex discrimination.  The Fourth Circuit includes federal courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. 

In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., Evangeline Parker received six promotions in a little over a year.  A male colleague who did not receive comparable promotions started a rumor the reason Parker received the promotions is because she slept with her boss.  This rumor was well known at the Company.  In fact, the highest ranking manager at the warehouse, asked the man accused of sleeping with Parker if “hey, you sure your wife ain’t divorcing you because you are f-king Parker?” 

That same manager also called a mandatory staff meeting.  When Parker and with her alleged paramour arrived late, the manager slammed the door in Parker’s face but allowed her paramour to enter.  In the meeting which Parker was not allowed to attend, the team discussed the rumor. Parker complained to the manager about his comments and he told her “he could no longer recommend her for promotions or higher-level tasks because of the rumor.”

Ultimately, Parker filed a sexual harassment complaint with HR against the manager and the employee who started the rumor.  The employee who started the rumor then filed a complaint against her for creating a hostile work environment against him through inappropriate conduct.  Parker was told to stay away from the employee whereas the employee was allowed free access to the warehouse where he undermined Parker’s authority with her direct reports.  Eventually, Parker was given two written warnings – one for the complaint from the employee and one for poor performance – and terminated.  She filed a claim of sex discrimination. 

While acknowledging the rumor went to the core of someone’s merit as a human being, the District Court dismissed her claim because it said the allegation was based on alleged conduct, not her sex.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

It noted: “[T]he rumor was that Parker, a female subordinate, had sex with her male superior to obtain promotion, implying that Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced a promotion.  She plausibly invokes a deeply rooted perception one that unfortunately still persists – that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success.”  It was plausibly alleged Parker suffered harassment because she is a woman.

For employers, this case serves as a cautionary tale.  Rumor mills often run rampant.  You must nip rumors like this in the bud.  Moreover, while office gossip may be an interesting addition to otherwise mundane day-to-day office life, it is not appropriate for management to spread.  To the contrary, management should have told the employee starting the rumor to cut it out and get back to work.  It is also simply wrong to accuse someone of sleeping their way to the top, rather than praising their rock star performance warranting six promotions in such a short time span.  This case is yet another example of how courts take a broad view of sex discrimination and harassment in the era of the #MeToo movement.   Be pro-active and avoid being entrapped by such conduct.

Brody and Associates regularly provides training and counseling on maintaining a harassment free environment and on employment law issues in general. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.