EEOC Enters First Settlement in Sexual Orientation Case: How to React

On June 23rd, a large company (IFCO Systems) agreed to pay a landmark settlement in one of the EEOC’s first discrimination lawsuits on the basis on sexual orientation. For more information on the specifics of the settlement, click here.

What does this mean for you?

The EEOC has clearly decided that it is going to take claims of harassment on the basis of sexual orientation seriously (or, more seriously than before). But what is sexual harassment on the basis of sexual orientation? According to the EEOC, it’s gender discrimination – simple as that. In other words, if an employee is getting harassed, bullied, made fun of, or otherwise singled out because they don’t conform to some sort of “gender role” or “gender stereotype,” then that is sexual harassment.

For example, in the most recent case, the employer (IFCO Systems) got in trouble because an employee was saying things to his lesbian co-worker like, “I want to turn you back into a woman,” “I want you to like men again,” “You would look good in a dress,” “Are you a girl or a man?” and “You don’t have any breasts.” The employee also quoted biblical passages stating that a man should be with a woman and not a woman with a woman.

This, according to the EEOC, is discrimination on the basis of gender. It is also clearly a violation of Maine law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

So, here’s what you can do:

  • Make sure your employees are always respectful of each other – regardless of the way they dress or how they carry themselves. (For example, in one case, a female hotel employee was told she was not a “good fit” for the front desk because she had what her supervisor characterized as “an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look.” – and that was gender discrimination).
  • Make sure your employees know that co-workers’ appearance and whoever they choose to date is NOT workplace business. Safer to keep it at home.
  • Be wary of making comments about “traditional” masculine and feminine behavior. This recent EEOC case just opens the door for MORE avenues where employees can get in trouble for saying the “wrong” thing.
  • Let’s be honest, gender roles and sexual orientation is sometimes a political issue. Train managers to keep gender politics out of the work place.
  • Finally, if an employee comes to you complaining about comments others have made about their “masculine” or “feminine” appearance, who they are dating, or the way the “carry themselves,” take it seriously. Even if the comments are not illegal, address employee friction before it turns into something worse and before it affects workplace morale.

This article is not legal advice but should be considered as general guidance in the area of employment and corporate law. Bryan Dench, Amy Dieterich, Jordan Payne, and Rebecca Webber are employment and labor law attorneys; others at the firm handle business and other matters. You can contact us at 207.784.3200. Skelton Taintor & Abbott is a full service law firm providing legal services to individuals, companies, and municipalities throughout Maine. It has been in operation since its founding in 1853.