Sexually explicit rumors, affairs to influence promotion, jealous male coworkers, sexist remarks by a high-ranking manager, and ultimate retaliation and termination—an episode of Mad Men? The plot of a new show on Netflix? No. Real sexual harassment—at least according to Evangeline Parker, who filed a claim alleging discrimination under Title VII against her former employer, Reema Consulting Services, Inc. And with her allegations, we are reminded that employers must have heightened sensitivity to workplace gossip of sexual relationships, especially in this #MeToo era. Parker’s case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court of Maryland on the basis that the alleged harassing conduct was not gender-based, but the court’s decision was reversed, and her claims reinstated following appeal. Specifically, in Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., 915 F.3d 297 (4th Cir. 2019), the Fourth Circuit held that an allegedly false rumor that a female employee had slept with her supervisor to get a promotion can implicate Title VII liability “because of sex” where the employer is alleged to have participated in the circulation of the rumor and the employee is subjected to adverse employment action because of it.
This lawsuit is a cautionary tale for employers who need to understand the possible consequences of ignoring workplace gossip and the watercooler “rumor mill.” Regardless of the veracity of Parker’s allegations (which, if found to be true, are unsettling and reminiscent of pervasive sexual harassment of years past), Reema Consulting now faces a disruptive and expensive, but preventable, public lawsuit.
Parker alleged that, upon being promoted, “certain male employees were circulating within” the company “an unfounded, sexually-explicit rumor about her” that “falsely and maliciously portrayed her as having [had] a sexual relationship” with a higher-ranking manager in order to become Assistant Operations Manager. Id. She alleged that the rumor originated with a male coworker who had been hired at the same time and in the same position and who, because of Parker’s promotions, had become her subordinate. She contended that the male coworker was jealous and hostile to her achievement. Parker further asserted that Reema Consulting’s highest-ranking manager at the facility also participated in fueling the rumor by publicly saying to another manager, “Hey, you sure your wife ain’t divorcing you because you’re f—king [Parker]?” Parker alleged that, as the rumor spread, she endured open disrespect and resentment from her coworkers, including subordinates. Ultimately, according to Parker, she was blamed for the rumor and “bringing the situation to the workplace,” and was told that she would not be eligible for any further promotions. After Parker complained, she stated that she faced retaliation again when managers interfered and mocked her with subordinates. Then she was written up and discharged.