Everyone can picture it: a group of co-workers are gathered around the water cooler, discussing the terrible ending to the HBO show Game of Thrones when one person suddenly changes the topic with the attention catching phrase – “Did you hear about Jane?”

At this point, the person drops a juicy, although unverified, tidbit about Jane’s personal life. Those around the cooler are shocked and immediately level judgment against Jane. After chiming in with their two cents, the employees return to their desk and without hesitation lean over to their desk mate and say, “did you hear about Jane?”

And so it begins, a workplace rumor has been started and will soon be circulated throughout the workplace. This type of behavior is nothing new in American culture. Rumors and gossip are so wholly entrenched in almost every aspect of our lives, beginning in junior high and extending into our workplace as adults.

Typically, no one thinks about the ramifications of spreading rumors or gossiping, and more often and not, nothing comes about from those rumors or gossip. However, when the rumor and related gossip are so severe and pervasive and involve elements of a protected class or characteristic, there are potential legal ramifications. 

For example, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals — covering Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia — recently issued a decision finding that a sex-based rumor and the effects of the rumor, gave rise to a sexual harassment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In that case, the plaintiff-employee was promoted to a mid-level management position after three months on the job. Shortly after her promotion to manager, a rumor that plaintiff-employee had “slept her way to the top” began circulating throughout the company. The rumor was started by a co-worker who had started at the same time as the plaintiff-employee but did not get the same promotion to manager.

Subsequently, the rumor spread throughout all levels of the company and the plaintiff-employee began to suffer from hostile treatment from both the employees she was supervising and from upper management. The rumor was further exacerbated when a high-ranking manager held a meeting to discuss the rumor and forbid plaintiff-employee from attending while simultaneously blaming her for the rumor at the meeting.

The plaintiff-employee ultimately filed a complaint with human resources hoping to quell the rumor and alleviate the hostile work environment, but to no avail. About a month after she filed the complaint, she was terminated.

The plaintiff-employee subsequently filed a lawsuit, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The claim was initially dismissed at the district court because the court found that the discriminatory behavior complained of by the plaintiff-employee was based on the alleged conduct of the employee, not her sex. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and held that when you take into account all of the allegations of the complaint, particularly those alleging the sex-based nature of the rumor and its effects, that she effectively plead an adequate Title VII claim.

In coming to their decision, the Appeals Court observed that the substance of the rumor invoked 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.” Parker v. Reema Consulting Servs., 915 F.3d 297, 303 (4th Cir. 2019). Furthermore, they found that “these stereotypes may cause superiors and coworkers to treat women in the workplace differently from men.” Id. Accordingly, in connection with this negative stereotype, the Appeals Court found that the rumor and its effects amounted to harassment because of sex.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision is not revolutionary, but instead reflects a growing trend of courts recognizing that gender stereotypes can give rise to sex discrimination in violation of Title VII with rumors and gossip being the primary vehicle. Therefore, it is important to know when and how to address workplace rumors and gossip. Nevada Association of Employers has implemented a new training program to address this growing issue and help better prepare employers in implementing effective policies.