When workplace romances go south, the employer can be held liable if not handled appropriately.
On the heels of Valentines Day, a federal court in Pennsylvania allowed an employee's Title VII hostile work environment and retaliation claims-which were based on conduct by a coworker/mentor with whom she had a consensual affair-to advance to a jury. The federal court found the coworker's harassment was sufficiently severe and pervasive; and although the employee complained to the employer on several occasions, it never investigated or spoke with the accused harasser. See Ivins v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections-State Correctional Institute at Graterford.
In Ivins, a female employee began having a consensual affair with her mentor, who outranked her but was not her direct supervisor. The mentor/coworker allegedly discussed their sex life with other male workers and encouraged them to make lewd comments in the employee's presence.
The female employee attempted to end the relationship, but the mentor/coworker purportedly threatened suicide. She also claimed he was physically abusive. The employee missed several shifts of work from stress. As a result, the employer instituted disciplinary proceedings. The employee explained that she had been late or missed shifts due to the harassment, but the synopsis of the disciplinary hearing did not include her personal statement explaining why she had been late. The synopsis of the hearing was sent to the upper-level manager, who fired the female employee.
The federal court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the harassment was because of her sex, given that the mentor encouraged male coworkers to ask the employee lewd questions, spread rumors about her performing sexual acts in the workplace, and threatened to assault male coworkers if she engaged in conversation with them. The court also found that the conduct was severe or pervasive since it affected the employee's reputation at work. While the comments were not physically threatening, they were humiliating and frequent.
Take-aways for employers:
- Review and update your Romance in the Workplace and Conflict of Interest policies and procedures.
- Ensure supervisors and managers are aware that even consensual relationships between coworkers (even when there is no reporting relationship) can result in sexual harassment and hostile work environment claims.
- As we blogged about here, a handful of states that require sexual harassment training in the workplace.
- Since our last blog, Delaware has also added mandatory sexual harassment training requirements, which you can review by clicking the link. Training is now required by law in five states.
- Train your workforce regarding sexual harassment, including the fact that harassment may include continued texts, calls, emails, or communications once one party says stop. Make sure to include training on any applicable state-specific requirements. We are here to help!