Though I have not seen Beavis and Butthead in nearly 20 years, I am familiar with their middle school humor. Over the last week a situation played out that illustrated what would happen if Beavis and Butthead attended a Tech Conference.
Last week a woman by the name of Adria Richards, employed by a company called SendGrid, attended a conference called PyCon. From the photos, it looked like the conference had a few hundred (if not more than a thousand) attendees. Beavis and Butthead (not their real names – huh huh) happened to be sitting behind Ms. Richards. As the speaker started making technical references that I admit I know nothing about, Beavis and Butthead started cracking jokes.
Ms. Richards became annoyed and decided to alert the organizers of their conduct. Ms. Richards snapped a photo of the two men and attached the photo to a tweet of the jokes with the #pycon hashtag.
Soon thereafter the organizers removed the men from the conference. Upon returning to work, one of the men learned that he was losing his job. Right decision by employer? Probably not. But see my other posts on the at-will doctrine.
Now things really started to get weird. The Tech World did not take too kindly to the employment decision. Instead of going after Beavis’ employer, they went after Ms. Richards. She received death threats, rape threats, racial slurs including the N-bomb, and anti-semitic remarks. A few even publicized her personal information.
Ms. Richards’ employer was not oblivious to the firestorm, having received their own hate mail. So in the middle of last week, SendGrid published a message on their blog and Twitter stream announcing the termination of Ms. Richards’ employment. (??!!). While many in the Tech World celebrated her termination, others are left scratching their heads.
Having read this story from a number of sources, I could not help but think about its legal implications.
Although Beavis and Butthead’s conduct falls in the realm of harassment, it is doubtful that she would prevail if she pursued a harassment claim. Not only is an employee required to show unwelcome sexual conduct, he or she must also show that the conduct was so severe or pervasive as to create a hostile environment. Putting up with Beavis and Buthead jokes 8 hours a day, 5 days a week may create a hostile environment. However a few jokes here and there – huh huh – or isolated sexual remarks are not enough to get your case before a jury. It is also worth noting that the conference organizers took prompt, remedial action upon learning of the harassment.
Retaliation law presents a more difficult question. Retaliation occurs when someone asserts his or her rights under harassment law – i.e. complaining about harassment – and the employer takes adverse action for engaging in the protected activity. With respect to Ms. Richards’ case reasonable minds or a room full of highly talented employment attorneys could differ.
Notwithstanding the viability of any employment claim, it looks like SendGrid created more problems than expected by firing Ms. Richards. It did not take long for this story to go viral with it getting picked up by USA Today, Forbes, Ebony, and the first page/first story of Yahoo.
For whatever it is worth, the HR and legal teams in the Tech World need to engage in a massive mobilization effort to train employees and management on harassment law. As for Ms. Richards and Beavis, I am sure both have impressive backgrounds and it should not take them long to secure employment elsewhere.