Romance in the workplace can be tricky business. Employers typically don’t prohibit it, though, in recognition of the reality that many employees meet their significant others in the workplace. The traditional wisdom is that nonetheless, having a romantic relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate should be off-limits. The risk for harassment claims is simply too high. Thus, policies often provide that such relationships are prohibited, and should employees find themselves in such a situation, they should report it asap so the supervisory relationship can be changed. I’m a fan of this approach.
Still, it is not always clear when a workplace action is “based on sex” as defined by Title VII and its state counterparts. For example, the issue of sexual favoritism can be a tricky one. Even the EEOC has opined that isolated instances of sexual favoritism do not violate Title VII, reasoning that the non-favored can be of either gender. (See Policy Guidance on Employer Liability Under Title VII for Sexual Favoritism) A recent case sheds some light on the issue of romantic jealousy.
In Secilia v. Mt Oliver Borough, a federal court in Pennsylvania cleared the way for a sexual harassment claim to proceed to trial. The plaintiff was a police officer who had been in a romantic relationship with the Chief of Police. She ended the relationship, to his dismay, and had various other romantic interests on the force. One day, the plaintiff received a notice that her resignation had been accepted. There was one problem, though. She never submitted a letter of resignation. But according to the Chief, one somehow landed on his desk. (It turns out the plaintiff had various draft letters of resignation in her locker; she’d considered resigning several times but never acted on it). When the Borough insisted she had resigned, she sued for sexual harassment, alleging the Chief lied about the resignation based on his romantic jealousy and upset that she had ended their relationship. The employer argued that “jealousy” was not covered by Title VII, thus rendering the claim without merit. But the court disagreed. Instead, it held the plaintiff had presented evidence of “quid pro quo” harassment. If she could prove her allegations at trial, the situation amounted to the Chief insisting on the resumption of the sexual relationship as a condition of her continued employment.
The facts of the case are certainly intriguing. But the message for employers is pretty straight-forward. Be very wary of romance in the context of a supervisory relationship. If you don’t have a policy addressing the issue, consider getting one, and fast.