One employee’s favorite type of music is the bane of another’s existence. The radio talk show host one employee finds brilliant, another employee finds ignorant and tasteless. Managers and supervisors are often called upon to referee disputes over music and radios in the workplace. What many may not know is that such disputes can lead to litigation.
In a recent case, a federal appellate court ruled that a female employee should be allowed to present a sexual harassment case to a jury that depended in part on being subjected to sexually explicit language on radio programs that her male colleagues listened to. Although she was often told that she could play her own music or change the station, when she did so, the other employees would soon change the radio back to the offensive program. Even though the language from the radio programs was not directed at the employee, it affected her work environment to the point that she was distracted and had to remove herself from her usual workspace. Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., Case No. 07-10270 (11th Cir. 4/28/2008).
From time to time employees in union environments may challenge employers who try to limit radio use in the workplace. In one such dispute heard by a federal labor impasse panel, a unit of the Navy proposed that radios be banned at all times throughout the workplace. It claimed that radios could create shock hazards and employees might trip on electrical cords. Employees distracted by listening to radios might not hear important messages broadcast over the intercom and warning alarms. Finally, disputes between employees might erupt over programs selected and volume levels set. The union claimed that there had been a 20-year history of allowing radio before the ban, and that radio listening during personal time could help reduce stress.
The impasse panel found no evidence of safety problems, and ruled: “Employees will be permitted to listen to battery-operated radios with no or single earphone before starting work and during break and lunch periods. Radios are to be used in a courteous manner and played at a low volume.” See Case No. 94 FSIP 029.
What You Should Do
The best way to avoid liability for radio disputes in the workplace is to ban use of radios or music players. In the absence of a collective bargaining issue like the one presented to the federal impasse panel, there is no legal impediment to implementing a total ban.
Those employers who permit radio or music player use in the workplace mustadopt policies that prohibit listening to programs that offend fellow employees because of protected characteristics, such as race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and so on.