Thursday, September 7, 2017

It’s Not the Relationship; It’s the Lying About It That’s the Problem

Highlighting how important it is in defense of a Title VII gender claim to treat employees of both genders the same, last week the 7th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a discharged employee’s claim that she was fired because of her undisclosed relationship with a male subordinate.

In the case of Owens v. Old Wisconsin Sausage Co., the plaintiff, Jamie Owens, was hired as H.R. Manager. Shortly after her hire, she participated in the interview and selection process of a store manager. After a few months, several employees began to complain that they believed that the store manager and Owens were involved in a romantic relationship and that it was creating conflicts in the workplace.

The company did not have a formal policy against co-workers dating, but it did have an informal procedure. If it appears that co-workers have a dating relationship, especially when a supervisor/subordinate working relationship exists between the two, the company will question the employees about their relationship and adjust the supervisory relationship if appropriate.

The company here followed their procedure by asking both the plaintiff and the store manager about their relationship. The plaintiff denied a romantic relationship at first and then refused to answer when subsequently asked, claiming at one point that the inquiries were a form of sexual harassment. The store manager evaded questions on the subject.  As readers can guess, it turned out that the pair had a six year relationship even before they were hired by the company, and the plaintiff was ultimately discharged for not being truthful when asked about the relationship.

The crux of the plaintiff’s Title VII gender claim was that only she was discharged and not her store manager boyfriend. The court found, though, that she was not discharged for actually being a part of the relationship, but rather for lying about it when asked. Her boyfriend did not lie to his superiors, he simply avoided answering questions. Additionally, the court found that the plaintiff could not show that any male employees who acted similarly to her were treated more favorably. The court also found that as the H.R. Director, and supervisor of her boyfriend store manager, she had a greater duty to cooperate and conform to the company’s informal policies and procedures on potential conflicts arising from romantic relationships.

Employers should take note that it is always important to apply policies, even informal policies, uniformly with all employees. It also raises the question of whether employers should have written policies on co-worker dating or romantic relationships. Obviously, the company here was sensitive to the conflicts that can arise when a supervisor and subordinate date. Although banning any dating between co-workers can be troublesome and difficult to enforce uniformly (sometimes co-workers date without any trouble at all; raising the question of why they would be disciplined or discharged), it is generally a good idea for employers to have a written policy regarding supervisor and subordinate relationships. A policy which includes a duty to disclose such could have clarified the situation in this case and puts the duty on the employees to inform their employer, which gives employers the disciplinary option of a policy violation if an undisclosed dating relationship is discovered.