Work Outing To Strip Club Still Not Good Idea

In one of the most controversial decisions in sex discrimination law this year, the Maine Human Rights Commission has found that taking work outings at a strip club is not illegal sex discrimination. This case concerns medical residents at Maine Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in New England, who were pressured by their supervisors to join them at a strip club at the end of a regional medical conference. One of the hospital administrators complained about the practice, which occurred yearly and had become somewhat a tradition for the Center. He alleges that after he complained about the practice, which he feared was illegal sex discrimination, he was demoted and retaliated against in other ways.
The Maine Human Rights Commission decided this week that the hospital administrator’s suit was without merit as he had not been illegally retaliated against. The Commission went further as well, in finding that the Medical Center’s tradition of pressuring male residents to attend a strip club at the end of the yearly conference was not a problem. This was even after the administrator gave evidence that female residents were excluded from the trips, and for the male residents attending was “almost a requirement.”
The Commission’s decision that the work trips to the strip club was not illegal sex discrimination flies in the face of dozens of decisions across the country finding otherwise. For example, in 2004, Morgan Stanley paid $54 million to settle a suit by its female employees who claimed they were excluded from client meetings that took place at strip clubs. The New York Stock Exchange in 2006 issued policies discouraging outings at sexually explicit venues that could isolate or create a hostile environment for certain employees.
Regardless of the Maine Human Rights Commission’s finding, it seems clear that taking work trips to strip clubs can create massive legal liability for employers. Such trips can be found illegal under three separate theories of employment discrimination law: disparate treatment, sexual harassment and hostile work environment.
In the first case, taking trips to a strip club can open an employer up to liability for disparate treatment if they openly exclude female workers from attending, as was the case here. Discriminating against workers based by sex, even by just not inviting women to join in on an outing to a sexually explicit venue, can itself be sex discrimination. This is what the court in the Morgan Stanley case found, as the female employees missed out on work opportunities and advancement because they were excluded from client meetings at strip clubs.
Employers may also be liable for sexual harassment if they encourage or require workers to accompany them to strip clubs. For both women and men, being encouraged or required to engage in a sexually-charged activity, as a visit to a strip club can be so defined, can itself be harassment under the anti-discrimination laws. Employers may also be held liable if colleagues or supervisors take the visit to the strip club as an opportunity to act lewdly or in an inappropriate manner towards their co-workers. As the employer created such a situation by encouraging or requiring co-workers to attend such a venue, they could also be liable for what happens there.
Liability under the third theory of sex discrimination law, for creating a hostile work environment, is related to that for harassment. Even if employees refuse to attend the strip club, even being invited to such a venue, especially if such invitations are commonplace, may be seen as creating a hostile work environment for those employees who are uninterested in or offended by the invitation.
While the Maine Commission on Human Rights found that the Medical Center’s actions in this case did not rise to the level of discriminatory conduct, most courts and judges would probably find otherwise. The $54 million settlement by Morgan Stanley in 2004 certainly provides evidence that strip clubs are not an appropriate venue for a work outing, and women and men uncomfortable with such arrangements have a right to speak up. For California employers, it seems clear that work outings to strip clubs are still just not a good idea.

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