Written by attorney Robert Lee Abell

Sexual Harassment and the "Locker Room" Atmosphere

How does or does a "locker room" atmosphere contribute to an unlawful hostile work environment. "Yes" answered the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which found a hostile work environment created by a "locker room" atmosphere characterized by unprofessional behavior by both males and females in Gallagher v. CH Robinson Worldwide, Inc., No 08-3337 (May 22, 2009).

Julie Gallagher worked as a sales representative for a trucking company, CH Robinson, in a cubicle amidst an open floor plan. There was virtually no privacy in the work area. As a result, conversations between co-workers were easily and unavoidably overheard, co-workers computers and work space were readily visible to others and phone conversations were likewise easily overheard.

The "locker room" atmosphere included the following:

  • prevalent references by male coworkers to female customers, truck drivers, and coworkers as bitches, whores, sluts, dykes and cunts;
  • frequent viewing by both male and female co-workers of sexually explicit pictures on their computers;
  • pornographic magazines left lying open on male co-workers desks; and,
  • male co-workers that frequently traded sexual jokes and engaged in detailed discussions about "their sexual liaisons, fantasies and preferences in her presence on a daily basis."
  • Gallagher herself was repeatedly called a "bitch" by a co-worker, referred to by another as a "heifer" and taunted by a male co-worker earing nothing but a towel around his waist when she was the only female in the office.

The court considered this gross evidence of a hostile work environment and sexual harassment, remarking that even though members of both sexes were exposed to the offensive conduct in the office, "considering the nature of the patently degrading and anti-female nature of the harassment, it stands to reason that women would suffer, as a result of the exposure, greater disadvantage in the terms and conditions of their employment than men." The critical issue in a sexual harassment case is whether members of one sex are subject to more disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment than members of the other sex. The court also emphasized that focus must be placed on the effects of the harassing conduct "on the victim-recipient." In this regard, the court observed that indiscriminate misconduct and language directed at both male and females in the workplace could constitute sexual harassment and create a hostile work environment if a reasonable person, regardless of gender, would consider the atmosphere more offensive to women than to men.

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