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In a decision issued last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that gender-derogatory words and conduct that are either severe or pervasive may state a claim of a hostile work environment, even when the words at issue are not directed specifically at the plaintiff. Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., 11th Cir. (en banc), No. 07-10270, January 20, 2010.

The case involved a female employee working in a male dominated field. Her coworkers blasted offensive radio shows in shared workspaces. One coworker displayed an explicit picture of a naked woman on his computer screen. And the men in the workplace frequently used derogatory terms to refer to women generally.  Even though her coworkers never directly insulted or threatened the Plaintiff, the Court held that the their actions created an objectively hostile work environment for any woman.  With this decision, the 11th Circuit joins the majority of Circuits in holding that a hostile work environment may be created in violation of Title VII, even when the plaintiff is not individually targeted.

Courts have uniformly held that Title VII is not a general civility code.  It does not protect against isolated sexually-tinged remarks.  Nor does it protect against pervasive harassment that is non-discriminatory.  But while the law tolerates general vulgarity, and even boorishness, liability arises when employers abide the frequent use of gender-derogatory language.

This holding bears special significance for work environments where curse words are part of the everyday vernacular of the employees.  Employers wishing to avoid this kind of litigation should pay careful attention to address employee complaints. Training supervisors to reign in gender derogatory words and conduct could prevent a situation where an employee feels he or she has to complain in the first place.