Gossip occurs in every workplace. Its just human nature. Most employers ignore it. But can it rise to the level of a sexual harassment claim?
A recent case in Indiana attempts to deal with that question. Heather Billings drove a school bus in an Indian school district. She was targeted by a group of co-workers who referred to her as a "skinny bitch", "back-stabber, and "whore". The harassers, who included both male and female drivers, spread several false rumors about her having affairs with other drivers. She complained to the human resources, stating she thought it was "sexual harassment". However, the director decided it was a "personal disagreement", rather than harassment.
Rumors continued to spread. She complained two more times to human resources, but the director told her not to let such things bother her and encouraged her to deal with it by approaching the people who were spreading the rumors.
Shortly after the third complaint, a co-worker reported that she had repeatedly seen students standing on Billings' bus while it was in motion, which was a safety violation. The school district then fired her.
Billings filed a lawsuit in federal court complaining that her termination was in retaliation for her multiple complaints of sexual harassment, and therefore violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The school district filed a motion to dismiss, taking the position that Billings' complaints of rumors and gossip about sexual relationships also affected male co-workers, and that gossip alone could not be sexual harassment because it was not related to her gender.
The court refused to dismiss the case, and a jury will now decide whether Billings' termination was in retaliation for her complaining about sexual harassment by co-employees.
What's the lesson here? It is that gossip among co-workers can rise to the level of sexual harassment that must be addressed by the employer. If the employer ignores or dismisses such gossip, a sexual harassment claim is possible.