Swearing at work may be good for morale, but according to the Eleventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, if you want to swear like a trucker, you’d better not do it while working for a trucking company.
Last week an appeals court panel ruled that an employee lawsuit against the transportation company C. H. Robinson Worldwide could go forward because “language and radio programming that are particularly offensive to women” create a “hostile work environment.” According to the court, even if the offending language doesn’t target the plaintiff, its persistent use violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.).
Ingrid Reeves sued the shipping company she worked for because her male co-workers used sexually explicit language on a daily basis, the kind of language that would make a sailor blush. They also tuned the office radio to a morning program featuring explicit sexual comments, and when Reeves changed the station because it made her uncomfortable, the men in the office changed it back.
There’ll be no more swearing like a trucker on the job at C.H. Robinson Worldwide, according to a U. S. Court of Appeals ruling against this transportation company
The sexually-explicit office chatter, which is too raw to repeat in a family blog but is detailed quite matter-of-factly in the appeals court ruling, continued even after Reeves complained about it. At one point a co-worker told Reeves to wear earplugs to work the next day because it would be his last day on the job and he was going to say whatever he wanted to. According to Reeves, who heard every word, that last day of work was “full of sexually offensive remarks, comments, stories, conversation, language – just like any other day.”
Although her co-workers were swearing around her, not at her, Reeves became so uncomfortable with office life that she resigned her position as a transportation services representative after three years and filed a discrimination suit against the company.
Reeves didn’t want on-the-job swearing banned. She acknowledged that she was comfortable with a certain level of profanity, and that she herself occasionally used choice language to let off steam in moments of frustration. What bothered her was the frequency and intensity of office swearing, and its extremely sexualized and sexist nature.
The lower court acknowledged that the work environment at CHRW may have been unprofessional, but since both men and women were subjected to the continual foul and sexually-explicit language, there had been no sex-based discrimination, and so it dismissed Reeves’ suit.
But the appeals court disagreed, noting a parallel between racially- and sexually-offensive speech: just as previous rulings have found that racial epithets have a disproportionately negative effect on members of the targeted racial group even if they’re not directed at the individual who finds them offensive, the words Reeves called into question, bitch, whore, and a whole lot worse, were “more degrading to women than men.” Plus, Reeves was the only woman working in that particular office, and so the burden of putting up with the sexist language fell disproportionately on her unprotected ears.
The courts generally give employers broad latitude to control the language of their employees. Employers can listen in on phone calls, read employee emails, track their web searches, even tell workers what language they can and cannot speak on the job. But in Reeves. v. C.H. Robinson we don’t find an unusually liberal employer stepping back from this traditional big brother role so much as one that doesn’t want to disturb the “boys will be boys” ambience of an almost-all-male office.
Now that the case has been returned to the lower court, a jury will hear the evidence and find for the plaintiff or the defendant. But the issue in this case is not so much free speech versus speech codes, and it would be wrong to conclude that the litigants are the rowdy frat boys versus the prudish schoolmarms. Rather, we seem to be dealing with the failure of management to mediate a situation that might be normal for a trucking office as depicted in a gritty HBO series but seems to have been wildly out of touch with the image of high-tech efficiency and socially-progressive diversity portrayed on C.H. Robinson Worldwide’s corporate website.
C. H. Robinson Worldwide handled over 2.3 million shipments last year and was named one of the top 200 “best managed” small companies by Forbes Magazine. The company website stresses a commitment to diversity and shows many images of happy female employees like the ones pictured above, who removed their earplugs for the photo shoot.