“Too many hens in the hen house.” Quaint remark, isn’t it? The problem is, these quaint remarks can end up as evidence of discrimination, as one employer learned to its sorrow in Ford v. E.J. Leizerman & Associates, LLC.
In that case, an older female attorney sued her law firm for age and sex discrimination after her termination. The firm stated that her termination was part of a reduction in force. There was evidence, however, that could support a finding that the firm’s explanation was simply a pretext for discrimination. Among the evidence were several gender-related comments that were allegedly made by the partners: that the plaintiff could not sit at counsel’s table during a trial because she would be the third woman at the table; that the plaintiff would not be allowed to attend certain railroad-related parties because women cannot make it in the area of railroad law (even though the plaintiff was practicing law in that area); and, in the context of the termination of another female employee, making reference to the “hen house” and that having too many hens together is a problem. Because of this evidence, the court refused to dismiss the claims, meaning that the case would proceed to trial.
I’m sure the partner making the “hen house” statement didn’t think much of it at the time – he was probably just making a flip comment. Many of us use old clichés and sayings because they are familiar or may seem apt to the situation. It has long been part of the common vernacular to refer to women as various types of fowl – “chicks,” “birds” and “hens” among them. The problem is that these types of comments can take on a derogatory or negative meaning, even unintentionally.
Lesson for employers – think before you speak! Or you may just put the cat among the pigeons.