IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Playing sexually graphic and violent music in the workplace can be discrimination, court rules

Former employees of S&S Activewear say explicit music played at a Reno, Nevada, warehouse, including songs by Eminem, produced a hostile and abusive work environment.
Eminem performs during the 37th Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Nov. 5, 2022, in Los Angeles.
Eminem performs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Los Angeles in November.Theo Wargo / Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame file

A federal appeals court ruled last week that vulgar music played in the workplace may be a form of sex discrimination.

Former employees of apparel manufacturer S&S Activewear say in a lawsuit the company permitted its managers and other employees to routinely play music including "sexually graphic" and "violently misogynistic" lyrics. That fostered a hostile and abusive work environment at the company's facility in Reno, Nevada, the lawsuit says.

Eight plaintiffs, seven women and one man, took offense to the music, which allegedly "denigrated women" and graphically detailed extreme violence against them. It included an Eminem song about a pregnant woman's being put into a car trunk and "driven into water to be drowned," according to the lawsuit.

The music incited abusive behavior by male employees, who openly shared pornographic videos and yelled obscenities, the suit says.

Despite daily complaints from some employees, S&S management defended the music, describing it as motivational. The plaintiffs found the music nearly impossible to avoid, given that it was blasted from commercial speakers to cover the 700,000-square-foot warehouse.

The employees alleged the music and related conduct were sexual harassment and in violation of Title VII, which, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin."

Initially, a lower court dismissed the claim, agreeing with the defendants that because both men and women were subject to the songs, the conduct did not constitute sex discrimination. The court held that there was no allegation “that any employee or group of employees were targeted, or that one individual or group was subjected to treatment that another group was not.”

"The offense taken by a man doesn't magically cancel out the offense taken by women," said Mark Mausert, an attorney representing the employees, told NBC News. "The court used this semantical misinterpretation to arrive at a result that's not consistent with the purpose of the statute."

The plaintiffs appealed. Last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the dismissal and remanded the case, allowing the lawsuit against S&S to move forward.

"Harassment, whether aural or visual, need not be directly targeted at a particular plaintiff in order to pollute a workplace and give rise to a Title VII claim," Judge Mary Margaret McKeown wrote in a court opinion.

"The challenged conduct’s offensiveness to multiple genders is not a certain bar to stating a Title VII claim," McKeown continued.

Lawyers for S&S Activewear did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mausert said music with such sexually graphic lyrics and gender pejoratives could re-traumatize survivors of sexual abuse, particularly women.

"Nobody thinks about how it affects the people who don't want to listen to that music," he said. "You want to have a healthy, interdependent work environment where people take care of each other and respect each other."