Most people know overtly sexual comments are likely to violate their employer’s rules and could lead to sexual harassment claims. But many don’t understand the comments are a problem not just because they’re sexual. That’s because the sexual content can be used as evidence to show other nonsexual negative treatment was motivated by discriminatory intent. As a result, the sex-based misconduct is just one aspect of the working environment you must consider—whether overtly sexual or not—to determine whether an employee was subject to a hostile work environment.
In the following opinion from the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Wyoming employers), you can learn more about how employees should be trained to avoid harassment and how supervisors should deal with rumors and other inappropriate behavior.
Quick Summary of Court Action
The Wyoming Highway Patrol (WHP) was sued by Delsa Brooke Sanderson, a female state trooper, who alleged discriminatory demotion, sexual harassment, and retaliation for complaining about the behavior. The trial court dismissed the sexual harassment and retaliation claims without a trial, and a jury found in the WHP’s favor on the discrimination case.
Sanderson appealed the dismissal of her sexual harassment and retaliation claims. The 10th found partially in her favor and sent the harassment claim back to the lower court for a jury trial.
Successful State Trooper
Sanderson had a positive career with the WHP. During the first seven years of her employment, she received positive reviews, a “Trooper of the Year” nomination, and a commendation award. However, she was subjected to various rumors claiming she was sexually promiscuous and used sex to gain advantages:
- Rumors referred to Sanderson as the “division bicycle,” implying she had sex with her colleagues.
- If she developed friendships with male colleagues, rumors would begin that they were having sex.
- Rumors also were passed around that she flirted and used sex to get a new patrol car.
The court noted the evidence showed she faced resistance because she was very assertive and direct, which others found hard to take from a female trooper.
In 2015, Sanderson was appointed to “Division O,” which provides security for the governor and state legislature. She also was trained as the WHP’s first female K9 handler and assigned to sweep the legislature’s chambers for explosives. Her Division O coworkers continued to offer some of the sex-based resistance she had faced in her previous work groups. Some troopers said the unit “does not accept females.”
Rumors that Sanderson was having an affair with someone in the chain of command were routine, and she was accused of having exchanged sexual text messages with a captain in the division. Also, she was accused twice of flirting or becoming too familiar with men outside of the WHP whom she met in the course of her duties. In addition, after she was reprimanded for not promptly answering a radio call, she responded to a call while she was in the bathroom. When the trooper who called her learned where Sanderson was, he told her not to answer the radio when she was “douching.”
In addition to the above examples of sexually related comments, Sanderson claimed her coworkers ostracized and ignored her. When the WHP’s K9 team was at a conference in San Diego, they ignored her greetings when she approached them. At another event, two troopers were standing together when she approached. One immediately walked away. The other responded to her question about how he was doing, and then walked away.
Sanderson also reported she asked a question of two male troopers who were in the same room. One stated he didn’t know the answer and asked the other, then both got up and left the room without further comment. Finally, she testified a trooper brought breakfast burritos to a training meeting for all the people at the session except her.
Sanderson talked to supervisors at least four times about the treatment she received from her Division O coworkers. She also texted a supervisor directly, stating:
I have had enough of being treated like shit by my coworkers. It’s no wonder no female makes it in the O division. The guys in the division make it right miserable for any female.
Sanderson was demoted from Division O after a February 2016 incident. She was working with a dog trainer under contract with the WHP. In the course of a difficult training session, she told the trainer to “stop being an asshole.” She was disciplined for the comment and (several weeks later) demoted from the division to her previous position….
Source: HR Daily Advisor