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Not Perfect Harmony: Blasting Music with Derogatory Terms May Create a Hostile Workplace



Employers who allow music in the workplace should pay attention to lyrics and content. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that music with sexually derogatory and violent content played in the workplace can create a hostile environment in violation of Title VII.

Facts of the Case

Stephanie Sharp worked for S&S Activewear in its 700,000-square-foot warehouse in Reno, Nevada. She, along with seven other former employees, brought a lawsuit alleging sex-based harassment in violation of Title VII based on music played throughout the workplace.

According to Sharp, S&S permitted its managers and employees to routinely play sexually graphic, violently misogynistic music with lyrics that denigrated women, including terms commonly understood to be derogatory of women and glorifying prostitution. One song in particular detailed a pregnant woman being stuffed into the trunk of a car and purposely driven into the water. Employees were allowed to blast the offensive music from commercial-strength speakers placed throughout the warehouse and mounted on forklifts driven around the warehouse, making the music difficult to avoid. The music also allegedly fueled abusive conduct from some male managers and coworkers who would make sexually graphic gestures and explicit remarks, yell obscenities, and openly share pornographic videos. Despite almost daily complaints from multiple employees, S&S management supported the music because they believed it motivated productivity and let it play for nearly two years.

In response to Sharp’s civil complaint, S&S argued that offensive music could not constitute Title VII sex-based discrimination because the music was audible throughout the warehouse and offended women and men equally. As such, the music didn’t target any particular individual because of sex. The district court agreed and dismissed Sharp’s complaint.

On appeal, the Court analyzed the case under core principles of employment discrimination law. In doing so, the Court noted that offensive conduct need not target a specific individual to establish a claim under Title VII. Instead, the Court held that offensive music that infused the workplace with sexually demeaning and violent language may be sufficient to alter the terms and conditions of employment. The Court also rejected the “equal opportunity harasser” defense and held that whether conduct is offensive to multiple genders is not determinative and does not bar a discrimination claim under Title VII. Thus, sexually graphic and misogynistic music can pollute the workplace giving rise to a Title VII violation even when it offends all genders equally.

Key Takeaway for Employers

This decision is a good reminder that any offensive material in the workplace, including music, can create an actionable hostile working environment—even when it may not target a particular individual, but permeates the workplace as a whole. Conduct that is equally offensive or directed towards all genders is not a de facto defense to Title VII sex-based discrimination claims. Employers should ensure that any complaints related to vulgar or obscene language or content in the workplace are promptly and effectively addressed and periodic trainings are conducted to keep staff and managers reminded about appropriate standards of behavior and mechanisms for addressing complaints can all be critical to avoid claims such as this. Likewise, employers that allow music to be played openly in the workplace should consider whether they may want to update their policies to avoid these issues, or explore alternatives such as allowing employees to listen to earphones where they don’t present safety issues.

The legal issues impacting this topic are and will continue to be ever-changing (Employment Law in Motion!), and since publication of this blog post, new or additional information not referenced in this blog post may be available.

This article is provided for informational purposes only—it does not constitute legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the firm and the reader. Readers should consult legal counsel before taking action relating to the subject matter of this article.

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