The story goes that the Texas law firm of Scheef & Stone at one point enforced a policy that prohibited males and females from being alone together both in the workplace and outside the workplace.
While it is certainly conceivable that such a policy might have represented the firm’s (albeit misguided) attempt to avoid situations where sexual harassment might arise, according to the complaint filed against the firm by one of its female partners, the unwanted effect of this policy was actually to build a segregated workplace that harmed the firm’s female employees rather than protected them.
The complaint filed against Scheef & Stone alleges that this policy effectively created a workplace culture where male attorneys worked, and even socialized, primarily if not exclusively, with other male attorneys, shutting out female lawyers and hindering their ability to develop professional relationships within the firm. The result, it was alleged, was greater opportunity for male rather than female attorneys and ultimately lower pay for the the women lawyers in the firm. Scheef & Stone denied the allegations, including implementing a “closed doors” policy, claiming that the plaintiff simply disagreed with the firm’s business decisions, which it said were not based on gender.
While Georgia employers with similar (formal or informal) policies may think that they can breathe a small sigh of relief in that the complaint against Scheef & Stone was filed under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act and not a state or federal law available to Georgia plaintiffs, the issues raised by the case are certainly relevant to business in all states, including Georgia. Any employer with fifteen (15) or more employees is subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits any form of discrimination based on an employee’s sex, and it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to see the potential of a Title VII lawsuit arising out of a policy similar to the one allegedly used by Scheef & Stone.
The bottom line is that any policy–from an official firm rule to an informal management policy–that seeks to treat one employee differently from another because of her or his race, sex, age, religion, national origin, or disability, even those policies that a company or manager may allegedly seek to put in place for the protection of the employee, should be examined very carefully with an employment lawyer, as there is a good chance that such actions will not only be perceived differently by the employee receiving the “protection,” but they may well also be illegal under a range of state and federal employment laws. The employment lawyers at Briskin, Cross & Sanford are always happy to discuss your employment practices and help you develop policies and procedures that comply with both state and federal law.