Blue Collar Workplace Won’t Excuse Sexual Harassment
A federal district court judge in Pennsylvania wasn’t impressed by a manufacturer’s claims that it was a “blue collar workplace” and that in such environments, where foul language or joking among coworkers is common, it’s hard for an employee to prove that her work environment was hostile.
“That a particular workplace is considered ‘blue collar’—whatever that is supposed to mean—does not absolve an employer of fostering a workplace hostile for female employees,” said the Court.
Judith Vollmer worked for SPS Technologies, LLC, which manufactures performance fasteners. At her work site, 90% of the employees were men. She claimed that SPS coworkers and managers regularly directed sexist comments toward her and called her a “bitch.”
In addition, SPS’s workplace contained a variety of sexually explicit and gender-based material, including a flip sign displayed on a refrigerator that contained cards reading: “I am not a bitch. I’ve just been in a very, very bad mood . . . for the past 30 years” and “my sexual preference is . . . often.”
Roger Getz, a team leader whose job required him to perform monthly sweeps of the workplace to look for inappropriate material and behavior, testified that he thought the flip sign could violate SPS’s sexual harassment policy but that he didn’t remove it because it “wasn’t important” to him.
Also on a SPS refrigerator door was a suggestive picture of Miley Cyrus with the word “PIG” written across her body. Getz testified that he thought the picture was inappropriate and that it could violate SPS’s sexual harassment policy, but he did not think to remove it during his monthly sweeps of the facility.
Additional graphic material was found in the SPS workplace, and SPS Human Resources representatives acknowledged that bringing such items into the workplace would violate SPS’s sexual harassment policies.
Vollmer also transferred to a different shift to get away from a coworker who stared and leered at her.
Finally, after Vollmer made her final complaint to a supervisor, she was suspended for violating SPS’s code of conduct by failing to cooperate in an investigation concerning her relationship with a coworker.
Hostile Workplace Environment
SPS argued that Vollmer couldn’t prove that a reasonable person working in a “blue collar workplace” would have been offended by the remarks and graphic material. It cited to cases where courts had found that questionable conduct did not constitute a hostile work environment. But the Court held that in those cases, the conduct was “rampant and indiscriminate among all employees,” whereas in this case,“Ms. Vollmar was one of only a few female employees subject to questionable comments, behavior, and materials in a male-dominated workplace.”
The Court concluded that Vollmer could proceed to a trial, where a jury would decide whether a reasonable person in her position would have been detrimentally affected by the atmosphere of the workplace and whether management knew of the harassing conduct and should be vicariously liable for it.
Enforcement of Harassment Policies
Employees need to know that their harassment complaints will be taken seriously. As the LeFebvre Law Blog noted in a story about Roger Ailes, “A policy is only as good as the people who enforce it.” SPS had sexual harassment policies in place. It had also assigned a team leader to do monthly checks for inappropriate material and behavior. But that team leader was either unaware of the scope of his responsibilities, or unwilling to perform them. An employer will find it hard to create a culture of compliance if its team leaders and managers don’t take company policies seriously.
In this case, Vollmer was suspected of having a relationship with a coworker. She also failed to cooperate in the investigation about that relationship. But although SPS suspended Vollmer for the code of conduct violation, her suspension was imposed soon after her final complaint, which could lead a jury to infer that SPS retaliated against her for her complaints. Employers need to be careful when dealing with employees who report sexual harassment, so that disciplinary actions don’t look like retaliation.
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