There’s a misconception that e-mail can ever be truly private. As this recent case shows, there’s always a chance that messages will find their way into the hands of unintended recipients.
A female sales manager at a car dealership was involved in a long-running dispute with a male co-worker. The woman routinely closed more sales than the man — she felt his belief that a women shouldn’t earn more money than him was the root of the problem.
One day, the two got into a verbal fight that culminated in the man calling her a “bitch” and walking out of the dealership. Rather than let the employee quit, the company called him and convinced him to come back to work.
The woman somehow gained access to the man’s e-mail account without his permission. She stumbled across an e-mail the co-worker sent to another employee, talking about her in insulting and sexually charged language (we won’t reprint it here — as the company itself admitted, the e-mail was “vulgar and offensive”).
She showed her boss a copy of the message, and the two employees got a verbal reprimand.
Shortly after, the dealership announced a new payment plan for sales managers. Under the new system, the managers would share a portion of their commissions. As the female employee saw it, the plan was basically a pay cut for her and a raise for the man, since she regularly received more in commissions than him.
That was the last straw for her. She quit and sued the company for gender bias and sexual harassment.
The company claimed the new pay plan was just an effort to save money and argued there was no evidence of any discrimination or harassment.
Regarding the e-mail, the dealership said the woman was never meant to see the message, so it couldn’t be seen as harassment.
The court disagreed. The e-mail showed what kind of environment existed in the workplace, and it didn’t matter if the offensive message was sent directly to her.
That, combined with the company’s tolerance when the male co-worker used a sexually derogatory term during their fight, sank the dealership’s case.
The lesson for managers: E-mail rarely stays private, and anything written can leave a permanent trail of evidence for an employee’s legal claims.
The e-mail in this case was something that obviously should never be said or written in the first place, but even seemingly innocuous comments can come back to haunt the company.
Cite: EEOC v. PVNF, LLC
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