A Hostile Work Environment, or Simply in Bad Taste?

March 25, 2016

Every Friday, Cabela’s, a hunting, fishing and outdoor merchandise store in Hoffman Estates, held “Fun Fridays” to promote employee morale. Fun Fridays included anything from treats being brought into the office or games being played in the break room. On December 21, 2012, the tradition continued when a manager created eight videos from the website JibJab.com. These videos feature images of a person’s head digitally imposed on the body of someone else, often in a music video or card. Tammi Killis, another manager at Cabela’s, had her face placed on the body of a leotard-clad Oliva Newton-John singing the 1981 hit, “Physical” and striking sexually suggestive poses. Two other managers were also in the video, with their faces imposed on men, thrusting behind the image of Killis.

Killis asked that the video be taken down and one manager’s response was “[expletive] that, it’s hilarious.” After her colleagues had seen the video, many made comments to her about it including asking “do you wanna get physical?” and that she “looked good in the video.” Killis was so offended and upset by the video and the resulting comments that she allegedly developed headaches, nausea, vomiting, and anxiety. She obtained psychiatric care and therapy because of her work environment. Soon after, Killis filed a complaint with human resources. After the investigation, Cabela’s fired the manager who made the comment about the video being hilarious, because of his use of profanity and inappropriate interactions with the plaintiff. Then, without raising any further complaints, Killis sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for sexual harassment and violation of the store’s policies. That case is Tammi Killis v. Cabela’s Retail II Inc., No. 13 C 6532.

Judge Joan B. Gottschall granted summary judgment in favor of Cabela’s. In her opinion she stated that while the video was “inappropriate and in poor taste,” it did not meet “the kind of systemic discriminatory behavior that hostile work environment claims require,” quoting the case Zayas v. Rockford Memorial Hospital, 740 F.3d 1154 (7th Cir. 2014). In balancing the video, the comments, and the length of time the plaintiff was exposed to them, Judge Gottschall decided that there was no evidence to suggest that the conduct at issue was a recurring problem or that it was characteristic of the working environment at Cabela’s. Additionally, because Cabela’s took quick action in response to the plaintiff’s complaint, this further highlighted that this was not characteristic of the work environment.

While office morale is a very important thing, employers and managers must keep in mind that what is funny to one person, may be highly offensive to another, and could cause a hostile work environment if not careful. The attorneys at Rock Fusco & Connelly can help you decide on the best course of action when it comes to harassment or discrimination issues at the workplace.