Friday, May 6, 2011

Pin-Ups Pose Problem for Employer - COTW #39

The latest Case of the Week is a warning regarding inappropriate materials in the workplace. In Hoyle v. Freightliner LLC, 2011 WL 1206658 (April 1, 2011), the Fourth Circuit sent a hostile work environment claim back to the district court for trial, based largely on a pervasive environment of pictures of scantily clad women.

The plaintiff, a female employee at a truck assembly plant, reported the following:
  • "[P]hotos of scantily-clad women in G-strings taped to the lid of a company-issued toolbox."
  • "[S]exually provocative calendars" of women in bathing suits (including one taped to a toolbox... see a pattern here?).
  • "[O]ther photos that male employees had on the outside and inside of their company toolboxes."
  • One employee had a "picture of his wife in a G-string kind of like bent over" (seriously?)
  • A screensaver featuring a picture of a nude woman
  • There was also an incident in which someone put a tampon on a key ring
Wow, these guys sure do like their pin-ups. Now, swimsuit calendars and pictures of women in g-strings aren't exactly hardcore pornography... but they're not appropriate for the workplace either. The Court noted past precedent:
[V]arious incidents and displays "that consistently painted women in a sexually subservient and demeaning light were sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the plaintiff's] employment and to create an abusive work environment."
Accordingly, the plaintiff's hostile work environment claim was sent back to the district court for trial.

The opinion noted that some of the male employees made comments to the effect that nobody can tell them what to put in their toolboxes. Employers often strive to give employees "ownership" of certain spaces... whether its their own office, their own cubicle, their own computer, or their own toolbox. That's a great idea, but employees also need to know that any space at the workplace is subject to the rules of the workplace, including the anti-harassment policy.

Posted by Philip Miles, an attorney with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania in the firm's civil litigation and labor and employment law practice groups.