Supreme Court Ruling Reminds Companies to Reevaluate Harassment Training

By Julie S. Mendel, SILA-A, CDEi
Jun 30, 2020
Supreme Court Ruling Reminds Companies to Reevaluate Harassment Training

The case of Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia involved termination claims wherein Mr. Bostock alleged he was fired based on his sexual orientation. His employer argued that sexual orientation was not included in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and they were not discriminatory in their firing of Mr. Bostock. That case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and on June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bostock, expanding the definition of “sex” in Title VII to include not only the traditional roles of “man” or “woman” but also gender identity, transgender status, and sexual orientation. This means that Title VII claims alleging discrimination, hostile work environments, and sexual harassment can rely on gender identity, transgender status, and sexual orientation when alleging harassment or discrimination.

Bostock is important because while many state and local statutes already expressly prohibited employers from discriminating against employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, these prohibitions are now extended to the federal level.

In Bostock, the Supreme Court ruled the following:

An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It makes no difference if other factors besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision or that the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. … Because discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex, an employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being homosexual or transgender also violates Title VII.

Kelley Edwards, a Houston labor and employment lawyer, noted in Houston Business Journal that with sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination now firmly protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers who discriminate against any employee for these reasons will be legally liable. These liabilities could include back pay, future earnings, punitive damages up to $300,000, and more.

“Many companies have already had voluntary policies in place prohibiting discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” said Edwards. “But the Bostock opinion makes it clear that any such discrimination is no longer merely a policy violation — it is now illegal.”

While many employers already have LGBTQ-inclusive polices, for those that don’t, it is time to review their anti-discrimination policies and workplace training to ensure that they encompass the full definition of “discrimination based on sex” as outlined in Bostock.

“Employers should be mindful to train their employees to be respectful of others in the workplace who may have different sexual preferences or who express gender differently than they do,” said Edwards. “This promotes a productive and respectful workplace environment and also can help prevent the company’s exposure to legal claims in light of the Bostock decision.”

Workplace Harassment Training

In addition to revising a company’s nondiscrimination policies to cover sexual orientation and gender identity, companies should also be sure to address any inappropriate behavior in the workplace targeted at an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation, responding in the same way as to inappropriate behavior targeted at an individual’s race, disability, religion, age, and all other protected traits.

Organizations should provide harassment and discrimination training to all employees at every level, including volunteers and managers. Companies who need help with workplace training can order online training courses from WebCE. WebCE’s harassment and discrimination courses are not only targeted to staff, they also contain specific information for managers and supervisors that include additional training on how to investigate and resolve complaints.

Order Sexual Harassment Training