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When Do Rumors Become Sexual Harassment?


It happens more often than it should. A female employee receives a promotion and, very soon after, rumors start to spread that she must have “slept her way to the top.” Common or not, the question is: do rumors about sexual behavior rise to the level of actionable sexual harassment in the workplace? Depending on which court decides this issue, it may or not be. This article will discuss both sides of the issue. Ultimately, if you believe you have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, you should discuss your situation with an employment attorney.

Federal District Court in Maryland Finds Claims Based on False Allegations of Conduct​

The federal district court judge who first reviewed these allegations found that the rumors were based on false allegations of conduct not on the employee’s gender. Although the judge acknowledged that such rumors would be offensive – asserting that someone only received their promotion because of sexual favors or sexual relations with the decision maker—yet, the judge found that it did not constitute sexual harassment. He reasoned that the comments were based on alleged conduct, not on gender. He further reasoned that the same type of rumors could have been spread about any gender.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Ruled Differently

The Court of Appeals saw these facts much differently. Considering the fact that a female subordinate was rumored to have only received the promotion through her sexual relations with a male superior, it implies that she used her womanhood rather than merit to obtain the promotion. This type of rumor invokes the long-held perception that women (not men) use sex to achieve success. In reality, this is a double standard. As the court reasoned, “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 reasonable to allege that the plaintiff, in this case, was subjected to harassment because of her gender.

Is a Single Act Sufficient to Constitute Sexual Harassment?

Most employees and employers know that unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, can be the basis for a sexual harassment claim. Yet, there are many cases out there where, despite the existence of these things, the court found there was no actionable harassment. In order for harassment to be actionable, it must be shown that it was “sufficiently severe or pervasive.” The most important thing to note is that the requirement for showing harassment is either severe or pervasive. So, a single act of harassment can be sufficient, but only if that one act is sufficiently severe. One example of a single act that is severe enough to establish harassment, is a physical incident.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King . You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!

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