Offensive lyrics in music played at the workplace can potentially contribute to a hostile work environment, especially if the lyrics contain explicit or discriminatory content that creates an uncomfortable or offensive atmosphere for employees and if this content is pervasive and severe enough to create a hostile atmosphere. A hostile work environment is a form of workplace harassment that violates anti-discrimination laws.
Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe and inclusive work environment for all employees, which includes taking measures to prevent and address harassment or offensive behavior. If the lyrics in the music being played are explicitly offensive, discriminatory, or create an uncomfortable atmosphere for certain employees based on their protected characteristics (such as race, gender, religion, national origin, disability or sexual orientation), it could contribute to a hostile work environment, but whether it actually does depends on several factors, including the nature of the lyrics, the impact on employees, and the response of the employer.
Not all offensive lyrics will necessarily lead to a hostile work environment claim. Context matters, and it’s crucial to consider the following factors:
- The Content of the Lyrics: The content of the lyrics should be evaluated to determine if they contain discriminatory, derogatory, or harassing language related to a protected characteristic.
- Pervasiveness: Is the offensive music a one-time occurrence, or is it consistently played in the workplace? A single instance of offensive music may be less likely to create a hostile work environment.
- Impact on Employees: It’s important to consider whether the music’s lyrics are causing distress or discomfort to employees. An essential aspect of a hostile work environment claim is that the behavior is unwelcome and has a significant negative impact on the working conditions.
- Employer Response: If an employee raises concerns about offensive lyrics, the employer’s response is crucial. Employers have a responsibility to address and rectify workplace behavior that creates a hostile environment. Ignoring or condoning such behavior can be problematic for the employer.
In a recent case in which music blasted from commercial-strength speakers placed throughout the warehouse and was nearly impossible to escape, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that music with sexually derogatory and violent content, played constantly and publicly throughout the workplace, can foster a hostile or abusive environment and thus constitute discrimination because of sex. The employer ignored “almost-daily” complaints for almost two years and defended the music as “motivational.” Seven female employees and one male employee sued. The lower court accepted the employer’s argument that the claim was not actionable because music offended both female and male employees and the music did not target any specific employee or group of employees and dismissed the claim. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, specifically rejecting the “equal opportunity harasser” defense, and sent the case back to the district court for reconsideration.
Employees who feel that they are subjected to a hostile work environment should consider discussing their concerns with their supervisor, human resources department, or following their organization’s established reporting procedures for harassment. If the issue is not resolved internally, employees may want to consult with legal counsel.
If you believe you have been sexually harassed at your work place, please reach out to our knowledgeable and compassionate lawyers at Jay S. Rothman and Associates for a free consultation.