An Arizona flight attendant lodged a complaint with her supervisor that three male pilots were engaging in sexual harassment against her. In fact, she then took the complaint to the head of HR, charging a hostile work environment, and requesting a transfer to another airport. After an investigation, the pilots were fired.
What happened. The crews involved worked for Executive Jet at Williams Gateway Airport. When eventually told of the attendant’s complaints, the pilots were shocked. They denied many of her claims and asserted that she and several other flight attendants participated in sexual banter often in the cockpit, sometimes initiating it themselves. And, two other flight attendants told the investigator they had heard the complainant say she wanted a transfer, so they suspected she had trumped up the whole accusation to get what she wanted.
Although the investigator could not confirm several of the attendant’s claims, he did find that the pilots pinched her rear, had romantic relationships with other flight attendants, forwarded obscene e-mails to co-workers, and referred to another attendant as a ‘fat cow.’ When fired, the pilots protested that the women had engaged in similar conduct and suffered no consequences, which meant, they said, that ‘similarly situated’ employees were treated differently based only on gender.
They sued in Arizona district court, where a judge ruled against them. His primary explanation was not that the women reported to a different set of supervisors than the men, which was true, but that the men hadn’t complained, while one woman had. The pilots appealed to the 9th Circuit, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
What the court said. Basically, appellate judges agreed with the district judge, adding that there is no rigid test for ‘similarly situated’ employees. But they wrote, “We do not support a ‘race to the Human Resource office’ as the sole determinant of the relevance of a complaint…. [But] plaintiffs’ reports of inappropriate conduct by female employees were made only in the context of the … independent investigation … and contain no indication that the conduct was unwelcome or harassing to them.” Hawn et al. v. Executive Jet, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, No. 08-15903 (2010).
Point to remember: Regardless of this flight attendant’s real motive in complaining, what a ‘reasonable woman’ might perceive as harassment can differ widely from the perspective of a ‘reasonable man.’
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