Human Resources News & Insights

Is it just gossip — or is it harassment?

Rumor-spreading is one thing — but harassment is something else. A recent case shows just how foggy the line between the two can be. 

Heather Billings was hired as a school bus driver by an Indiana public school corporation.

Several years after starting, a group of female bus drivers began to talk badly about her, referring to her as “skinny b—h,” “backstabber” and “whore.”

The group said Billings was too flirtatious, didn’t act the way a lady should properly act and that she had extramarital affairs with male drivers.

In fact, when Billings became pregnant with her fourth child, the group openly speculated around other employees whether the baby was her husband’s or another driver’s. The group also criticized Billings’s size, appearance and personal behaviors.

Billings eventually confronted one of her alleged harassers, who in turn screamed at Billings in front of Billings’ nine-year-old child. Billings complained to her supervisor, and the manager made all bus drivers attend sexual harassment training.

Over the next several years, Billings was written up for a number of policy violations, and each time she complained that she had been the victim of ongoing sexual harassment. After a final violation, Billings was fired.

Gossip was directed at both men and women, but …

As you may guess, Billings filed suit, claiming sexual harassment and retaliation.

A court noted that gossip can qualify as harassment in some cases — and this was one of those times.

Why? The rumor-spreading was directed almost primarily at female employees, specifically Billings. The only time men were made fun of or bullied at work was when they stood up for Billings or other female workers.

A court refused to dismiss the case — and now the company is off to trial.

McAfee & Taft attorney Charles S. Plumb had the takeaway for HR:

While it may be tempting to avoid involvement in employees’ squabbles and gossip as something “personal,” it can’t be ignored. In addition to detracting from productivity and creating an unprofessional work environment, gossip and personal attacks can evolve into something that, if unaddressed by the employer, can be actionable as harassment.

The case is Billings v. Southwest Allen County Schools School Corporation.

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