EMPLOYEE DISPUTES » When gossip becomes harassment

gossipAs long as people work together, gossip and personal disputes are sure to occur. Sometimes employers feel like they are acting in the role of a counselor or umpire of personal problems, rather than managing a workplace. But there are cases when unchecked gossip at work can rise to the level of actionable harassment. Under those circumstances, an employer does not have the luxury to write off employee disputes as something “personal” and ignore what is happening.

School bus drivers
get nasty

Southwest Allen County School Corporation (SACS) is an Indiana public school corporation serving township schools, which include one high school, two middle schools, and six elementary schools. It employs 66 school bus drivers, most of whom drive two routes in both the morning and afternoon.

Heather Billings drove high school, middle and elementary students to and from three schools. According to Billings, 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, not only accused Billings of flirting and “not acting in the way a lady should,” but also spread several false rumors claiming Billings was having affairs with other drivers. When Billings became pregnant, co-workers openly talked about whether the baby was her husband’s or a male co-worker’s. After she gave birth, someone placed a card in the male co-worker’s mailbox congratulating him on the birth of his new baby with Billings.

Billings knew the rumors and gossip were occurring. She went home crying and complaining about the gossip to her husband. Billings learned that some bus drivers were also “talking bad about her” to the students on her bus routes. Generally, the alleged harassers did not target male drivers with gossip or attacks.

Billings confronted two female co-workers in the parking lot about statements they had made about her on the bus system’s radio. When confronted, one of the female co-workers screamed at Billings, accused her of being a male co-employee’s lover, and went on to say she would do everything she could to get Billings fired. Billings was particularly upset about this incident because the statements were made in front on her 9-year-old son, who was in the car with her at the time.

Billings complained about the incident to the director of transportation and the human resources director, stating she thought it was “sexual harassment.” After interviewing the co-workers, the HR director decided it was a “personal disagreement” rather than sexual harassment, and issued verbal warnings. However, at the end of her notes, the HR director indicated the need to “schedule sexual harassment training for all bus drivers.”

Approximately two years later, Billings’ co-workers circulated a rumor that she and another male co-driver were having an affair. Billings complained on a second occasion to the director of transportation about this most recent rumor and said she had been sexually harassed at work for years. 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.

The following year, Billings was counseled by management about her personal appearance and was warned not to sit on the dashboards of buses visiting with other drivers while waiting for students. A male co-worker accused Billings of “flipping him the finger,

which Billings denied. At that point, Billings made her third complaint and stated that she had been experiencing harassment for years. Billings told the director of transportation she believed the group was trying to get her fired. Billings provided the employer with a list of drivers who she said were targeting her for sexual harassment.

Two months after her most recent report of sexual harassment, a cafeteria worker at one of the schools reported that she had repeatedly seen students standing on Billings’ bus while it was in motion, which was a violation of safety policy. After reviewing video recordings from Billings’ bus, the director of transportation and SACS decided to terminate Billings’ employment.

Gossip and Billings’ retaliation claim

Billings filed a lawsuit in federal court complaining that her termination was in retaliation for her multiple complaints of sexual harassment and, as such, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. SACS took the position that Billings’ complaints of rumors and gossip about sexual relationships, which affected Billings, also affected male co-workers. Therefore, SACS contended the gossip could not be sexual harassment+ because it was not related to Billings’ gender.

There are cases in which harmful gossip and rumors in the workplace can be actionable harassment under Title VII. That can occur when the acts and statements are aimed at a particular gender. According to Billings, the gossipmongers almost exclusively targeted her and other female employees. The only instances in which male employees were the targets of gossip were cases where male employees defended Billings. There was no question that Billings had complained to HR and the director of transportation on at least three different occasions about her ongoing mistreatment. The accusations towards Billings were invariably based upon the fact that she was a woman. When the HR director noted the need to schedule sexual harassment training for the workforce, the employer obviously recognized the gossip was related to Billings’ 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.

Keep your eyes and ears open

While it may be tempting to avoid involvement in employees’ squabbles and gossip as something “personal,” it can’t be ignored. In addition to detracting from productivity and creating an unprofessional work environment, gossip and personal attacks can evolve into something that, if unaddressed by the employer, can be actionable as harassment.

  • Billings v. Southwest Allen County School Corp., 1:12-CV-184 (N.D. Ind. 10/17/13)