Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace because of sex.  Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees.  By contrast, the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.  The WFEA applies to employers with one or more employees.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is the federal agency that is empowered to investigate allegations of discrimination under Title VII.  The EEOC recently sued El Tio Tex-Mex Grille, a restaurant in Gainsville, Virginia, with intentionally allowing harassment of one of its employees based on sex.

The EEOC alleged that El Tio employees, including servers and kitchen staff, routinely subjected a gay male server to unwelcome harassing and offensive behavior that included the use of homophobic epithets and taunts about his sexuality.  The same employees similarly harassed the server’s straight friend, a busser, based on their friendship.  The server and the busser reported the harassment to El Tio’s management several times, but management allegedly ignored their complaints, failed to take reasonable measures to curb the harassment, and neglected to implement any anti-harassment policies or training. The harassment continued, according to the EEOC.

As a settlement, El Tio has agreed to pay Forty Thousand Dollars ($40,000.00) and provide specific and extensive training to its employees for a three-year period following the settlement, with monitoring by the EEOC.

For Wisconsin employers, state law forbids harassment based on an employee’s gender, as well as his or her sexual orientation. Consequently, Wisconsin employers are well advised to maintain a workplace that is free from homophobic taunts or similar verbal or physical harassing activity, lest the employer become the subject of a complaint filed with the EEOC or the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division. Employers should not ignore complaints. Every employer should have an up-to-date anti-harassment policy as part of its employee handbook.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that such a policy may be a partial or complete defense to a complaint of sex harassment in certain instances.  For more information concerning compliance with state and federal workplace laws, consult with your employment attorney.