Tuesday, November 26, 2013

THE LEGAL PITFALLS OF WORKPLACE ROMANCE


 


Birds do it, bees do it,

Even educated fleas do it,

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

                        Let’s Do It (Cole Porter 1928)

I.  Introduction

History is full of great romances.  Romeo and Juliet, who defied their families for true love.   Rhett and Scarlett’s tumultuous love was set against the backdrop of the Civil War.  And of course, the classic workplace romance at the Daily Planet between Clark Kent/ Superman and Lois Lane.

But for Larry, GeneriCorp’s Human Resources Director, the great romance he’s concerned about is between Shipping Department Manager Ken Worth and Shipping Clerk Lola Rider.  Ken is Lola’s direct supervisor.  Larry learned about the couple’s sexual relationship after other female clerks in the Shipping Department angrily complained about Ken’s plans to promote Lola to the newly created and higher paying position of Assistant Shipping Manager. 

All indications at this point are that the relationship is consensual.  Morale is suffering in the Shipping Department amid complaints of favoritism and Larry is concerned about whether the company may have more serious potential legal problems.

II.  The Workplace as a “Dating Pool” 

Workplace romances are nothing new and if anything, have become more common. With the amount of time people spend working and the increased percentage of women in the workplace, it’s no surprise that the workplace is fertile ground for couples to meet. People who work together also usually live within a reasonable dating distance, and because they share a workplace, they see each other on a daily basis.  Coworkers in similar jobs may also be approximately the same age, and share similar interests both inside and outside of work.  As such, the workplace creates an inadvertent dating pool. 

In a survey of U.S. workers by the staffing and recruiting business Spherion Corporation, 39% of workers said they have already had a workplace romance and the same percentage would consider it.  Looking at the workplace relationships, the survey found 27% involved couples dating for just a few weeks or less, 30% dating for several months, 15% dating several years and 25% resulting in marriage of coworkers.  As the survey indicates, the majority of these relationships are short term and when the romance sours or goes bad, it can be really bad and cause serious problems for employers.  The Spherion Corporation survey noted that nearly half of all employees surveyed (46%) said they felt that dating a coworker would jeopardize their job security or career advancement opportunities.

III.  Non-Fraternization Policies

In this case, GeneriCorp does not have a non-fraternization policy, which would otherwise address Ken and Lola’s workplace romance.  In this regard, GeneriCorp is not unique. A recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management  showed that 72 % of the employers who responded said they did not have a written non-fraternization policy, 14 % said they had a non-written policy that was understood within their workplace, and only 13 % indicated they had a formal written policy.  However, even when there is a policy, many employers adopt an enforcement attitude of benign neglect. 

This is not surprising.  It’s an awkward subject for some employers and Human Resource professionals, who do not relish the role of being the “Romance Police.” Many would rather not get involved in employees’ personal lives unless it is causing problems in the workplace.  However, such policies are important so employers can clearly communicate to employees what is and is not appropriate in the workplace and to protect themselves from legal liability and disruption of the work environment.

What are some of the specific reasons for adopting such a policy?  It addresses and hopefully prevents problems arising from:

·         Favoritism/perceptions of favoritism (and the ensuing rumor mill)

·         Disruption of the workplace (including extramarital affairs)

·         Conflicts of interest

·         Confidentiality (nondisclosure agreements, trade secrets, salary information, etc.)

·         Hostile Work Environment

·         Sexual Harassment (including repeated unsolicited requests for dates)

The purpose of this article is primarily to address the issues that arise from consensual workplace romances, and it is not intended to address the broader area of sexual harassment.  However, as noted above, the problem with certain office romances, especially between supervisors and subordinates, is that they may not be consensual, and in fact may be coerced.  Contrary to the traditional Title VII scenario in such cases, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of EEOC charges filed by male employees, complaining of sexual harassment from female supervisors.  Any such  issues should be addressed fully by the sexual harassment policy employers should already have in place. A non-fraternization policy should be utilized in conjunction with the sexual harassment policy.

A.        Supervisor and Subordinate Relationships

In the case of the romance between GeneriCorp Shipping Manager Ken Worth and Shipping Clerk Lola Rider, what are the legal issues?  Assuming that it is a voluntary consensual relationship, there would not appear to be any liability for GeneriCorp under Title VII for sexual harassment and/or sexual discrimination. 

  However, what about the claims of favoritism from the other female clerks in the Shipping Department, who are upset that Lola is getting a promotion from her boss and new boyfriend?  Do these other employees have a Title VII claim against GeneriCorp for favoritism shown to a co-worker who is sexually involved with a supervisor?

According to the EEOC, the answer, in regard to “insolated instances” of sexual favoritism, is “no.”  The EEOC Policy Guidance on Employer Liability under Title VII was adopted January 12, 1990, and was updated in June 1999.  It provides that:

Not all types of sexual favoritism violate Title VII.  It is the Commissioners position that Title VII does not prohibit isolated instances of preferential treatment based on consensual romantic relationships.  An isolated instance of favoritism toward a “paramour” (or a spouse or friend) may be unfair, but it does not discriminate against women or men in violation of Title VII, since both are disadvantaged for reasons other than their genders.  A female [plaintiff] who is denied an employment benefit because of such sexual favoritism would not have been treated more favorably had she been a man nor, conversely, was she treated less favorably because she was a woman.[1]

In essence, the EEOC is saying that while other employees in the workplace, both men or women, may feel the situation is unethical or unfair, it is not sexual discrimination because both groups are disadvantaged for reasons other than their gender.  However, the EEOC Policy Guidance also notes that:


Managers who engage in widespread sexual favoritism may also communicate a message that the way for women to get ahead in the workplace is by engaging in sexual conduct or that sexual solicitations are a prerequisite to their fair treatment.  This can form the basis of an implicit “quid pro quo” harassment claim for female employees, as well as a hostile work environment claim for both women and men who find this offensive.
 

The EEOC authority has been cited favorably by federal courts within the Fifth Circuit (which encompasses Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) in dismissing such claims of sexual favoritism.  The Fifth Circuit itself has also held that an employee does not have a cause of action for retaliation for reporting a supervisor’s sexual relationship with a subordinate coworker.[2]

However, there is some indication that courts may be taking a more nuanced view on sexual favoritism based on consensual relationships. The key phrase in the EEOC Policy Guidance is that “Title VII does not prohibit isolated instances of preferential treatment based on consensual romantic relationships.” 

In a recent case by the California Supreme Court, it was held that widespread and overt sexual favoritism resulting from consensual relations could create a cause of action for sexual harassment and hostile work environment.  This ruling may reflect a trend in how courts view such cases.
 In Miller v. Department of Correction, 36 Cal. 4th  446 (Cal. 2005), two former female employees at a California prison claimed that the warden gave unwarranted favorable treatment to numerous female employees with whom he was having sexual affairs, and they claimed it amounted to sexual harassment and discrimination.  The case was dismissed at the trial stage but the California Supreme Court reinstated the lawsuit.  While it was a state court claim, the California Supreme Court relied on the federal EEOC Policy Guidance.  In finding for the Plaintiffs, the Court held:

[A]lthough an isolated instance of favoritism on the part of a supervisor toward a female employee with whom the supervisor is conducting a consensual sexual affair would not constitute sexual harassment, when such sexual favoritism in a workplace is sufficiently widespread it may create an actionable hostile work environment in which the demeaning message is conveyed to female employees that they are viewed as “sexual playthings” or that the way required for women to get ahead in the workplace is to engage in sexual conduct with their supervisors or the management. (emphasis added).

It is not uncommon that once a consensual relationship ends, the subordinate employee will subsequently claim they were coerced by the supervisor and will file a Title VII lawsuit.    Aside from any potential legal liability, the issue of a supervisor sexually involved with a subordinate can result in acrimony and disruption in the workplace if the relationship ends badly.  Even assuming the relationship continues happily, the impact in the workplace can be disgruntled coworkers, poor morale and a never-ending distraction from the real work of your business.
An employer’s non-fraternization policy should strictly prohibit romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinate employees or any employee who falls under that supervisor’s chain of supervision.  Companies that are large enough sometimes have policies that allow the supervised employee to transfer, if possible, to a different department, where they would not be supervised by their love interest.  However, this potentially opens the door to claims of employees being treated differently on the basis of their gender.  A zero tolerance policy best protects the employer.

While this type of policy may seem harsh and draconian, it is important to remember that the purpose of your business is not to be a dating service or a singles bar.  You did not create the situation, the two employees who started the relationship created the problem.  Having been involuntarily placed in the position of having to deal with it, this is the best option to avoid possible legal liability and problems in the workplace.  In the instance of a violation of the policy, the following procedure can be followed:

(1)   Call them in and talk to them separately;

(2)   Tell them that you have reason to believe that they are involved in a sexual relationship with the other employee;

(3)   Make them aware that the company has serious concerns because a relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate employee leaves the company open to claims of sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation or favoritism;

(4)   Inform both employees that it put the company in position where it has to do something to avoid legal liability and/or disruption to the workplace, and the situation  cannot continue;

(5)   Tell both of them they have until noon the next day or some other deadline to decide between themselves which of them is going to voluntarily decide to resign, and if they can’t, both of them will be terminated.  This avoids later claims of sex discrimination, because the employer’s decision is not based on gender and in the event they cannot decide, both genders are treated equally.  Some employers may elect to terminate one of the employees based on their respective employment history, position and seniority.  However, this opens the door to claims that employees of different genders were treated differently.
Some employers adopt non-fraternization policies that discourage but do not strictly forbid relationships between supervisors and employees who do not fall under their chain command.  Such policies require that the relationship must be disclosed by the supervisor to his or her manager or the next person up the supervisory chain.  The higher supervisory official then must assess the situation and make a recommendation to resolve any actual or potential conflict created by the relationship.  However, such policies may not address all of the potential problems. Likewise it results in  company managers using company time to “assess” romantic relationships.

 B.        Coworker Relationships
Fresh on the heels of addressing the Ken and Lola romance in the Shipping Department, Larry the Human Resources Manager is faced with another office love affair.  This time it’s over in the Data Processing Department.  Larry learns that Data Entry Clerks Ivy Pod and  Pete Dief have been dating quietly for six months, and generally few people at GeneriCorp know they are an item.  Neither Ivy nor Pete have any supervisory authority over each other.

It’s estimated that 80% of office romances involve similarly situated co-workers. Romantic relationships between co-workers with no supervisory authority over the other still present many of the same potential problems for the employer.  While there is less potential for sexual coercion than in a supervisor - subordinate situation, there is still plenty of opportunity for disruption of the workplace during the relationship, and even more so after an unhappy breakup.
Adopting the same zero tolerance policy as to co-worker romances is an option.  However, Human Resource professionals report such policies are harder to enforce in a co-worker scenario. Employees resent the intrusion into what they perceive as their private lives and they are more likely to keep the workplace relationships underground, putting more effort into “beating the system” as opposed to complying with a no-dating policy.

Taking into account the realities of the workplace and the reluctance to be the “Romance Police”, some employers have adopted policies that allow co-workers to date but require both individuals to enter into written agreements: (1) voluntarily disclosing their relationship, (2) acknowledging their understanding of the company’s sexual harassment and discrimination policy, and (3) acknowledging that if the relationship causes disturbance in the workplace, they may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination.  Such an agreement also requires either party to promptly report to management anything relating to the relationship or a broken-off relationship that might serve as the basis of a harassment complaint. 
Such an agreement is a way for employers to preemptively avoid problems with office romances.  If you need such a policy drafted for your business or a non-fraternization policy, please feel free to contact me and we can discuss what type of policy or agreement would work best for your workplace.

                        IV.  Tips for Dealing with Workplace Romances  
Office romances are often the focus of intense gossip, so Human Resources professionals and supervisors need to know to keep their ears open for news about job or career damaging behavior resulting from such relationships.  Supervisors need to know the appropriate disciplinary measures to take if a romance derails and the resultant employee behavior disrupts the workplace.

Employees need to be made aware that the company will not tolerate sexual liaisons or sexual behavior at work and any such relationships need to be kept entirely separate from the work environment. The company’s sexual harassment and non-fraternization policy needs to be posted and all employees should be trained as to the company’s policy.  If romance becomes sexual harassment, supervisors, working in concert with Human Resources, needs to know what to do to take immediate action.

V.  Conclusion
Paraphrasing the old song at the start of this paper, if birds and bees and educated fleas fall in love, the odds are employees at your company are doing the same.  Having the appropriate policies and training in place can help prevent legal woes  as well as workplace headaches and heartaches

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com


[1] See EEOC Policy Guidance on Employer Liability under Title VII for Sexual Favoritism No. 915.048
 
[2]       See Ellert v. Univ. of Texas, 52 F.3d 543 (5th Cir. 1995) (“Even if [Plaintiff’s] knowledge of the affair was the true animus behind the discharge decision, it was a motivation that did not rely upon her gender and, as such, it was not within the ambit of Title VII’s protections.”).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

EEOC Tells Employers “If you like your Criminal Background Check…you Can Keep your Criminal Background Check”



 After suffering defeats over its efforts to enforce guidelines on the use of criminal background checks, it appears the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has launched its version of a charm offensive, while simultaneously girding for appellate battle over its latest courtroom loss.

At the recent American Bar Association's Annual Labor and Employment Conference, top EEOC officials argued that the federal agency was not trying to prevent employers from using background checks. The EEOC’s Senior Counsel James Paretti said the EEOC’s new guidelines merely seek a balance between employers’ interests in protecting property and ensuring personal safety, and making sure that minority job seekers are not subjected to disparate impact discrimination under Title VII.

Paretti denied that the EEOC was administratively seeking to create a new protected class of individuals with criminal records. Under the 2012 enforcement guidelines, the stated rationale for the EEOC’s position was that employers’ reliance on criminal records as a factor in hiring decisions disproportionately affects minorities, who statistically have higher rates of arrest and criminal conviction, i.e. disparate impact.

One continuing complaint about the EEOC’s guidelines is that it places significant costs on employers to create and maintain screening systems to evaluate whether an individual with a criminal record should be excluded on the basis of business necessity, using factors such as the severity of the crime, the period of time since conviction and the specific duties and responsibilities of the job sought. The guidelines further require employers to allow for an additional individualized assessment to those excluded by the initial screening, to explain why they should not be disqualified.

In what appears to be a new approach by the EEOC, Paretti strongly suggested that while employers are free to use background checks, they should not do them until after employers already have determined that the applicant meets all other job qualifications. In a less than subtle threat, EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum noted that the agency was looking into whether the EEOC would consider it a record-keeping violation if employers did not retain data on the disparate impact the an employer’s background screening had on minorities.

I have two thoughts on this. First, requiring employers to go through the time and expense of ensuring an applicant’s qualifications, and then leaving a background check until last, could result in wasted efforts and additional costs. For example, an employer could spend significant time and effort confirming that a candidate is ideally qualified to be a daycare administrator, only to find out at the end, per the EEOC’s suggestion, that the job candidate is a convicted sexual offender, and ineligible for such a position.

Second, the EEOC’s intimation that employers who use background checks could be subject to even more stringent record-keeping requirements, belies their claim that they are not trying to eliminate employers from using background checks.

In a related note, you may recall in my September 30, 2013 posting, the EEOC suffered a court defeat in the case of EEOC v. Freeman. In that case, a District Court in Maryland granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer Freeman, dismissing the plaintiff EEOC’s claim that Freeman’s background check policies violated Title VII. In the Court’s opinion, it issued a stinging rebuke to the EEOC for pursuing a disparate impact discrimination claim based on “a theory in search of facts to support it.”

On November 6, 2013, the EEOC appealed the District Court’s dismissal of the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Other than the loss of face over the Court’s rejection of their theory of liability, the EEOC has another strong motivation to appeal the adverse ruling. Following the ruling in its favor, Freeman filed a motion to require the EEOC to cover the company’s $1.2 million dollars in attorneys’ fees.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Workplace Profanity Can Support Religious Discrimination Claim


A ruling by a federal District Court in Oregon should serve as a warning to employers that a co-worker’s use of profanity in the workplace may be enough to support a triable religious discrimination hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). In Griffin v. City of Portland, the Court noted that while not every use of profanity that occurred was enough to prove it was directed at the plaintiff because of her protected class, there was sufficient evidence to put the case in front of a jury.

For an excellent in-depth analysis of the case, I would direct you to an article authored by MaryJo Roberts, of my firm’s New Orleans office. For purposes of this posting the facts are as follows.

The plaintiff in the case, Kellymarie Griffin, described herself as a devout Christian. She alleged that co-workers frequently used profanity in the workplace, including the names of God and Jesus Christ in their curse words. The Plaintiff alleged that because of her deep religious beliefs, she was offended by such profanity and would inform her co-workers that such language was offensive to her. From the facts of the case, it appears that for the most part, such profanity from her co-workers was not directed at her because of her faith or on the basis of religious animus, and the co-workers generally refrained from cursing in her presence after she spoke with them.

More troubling were specific comments from plaintiff’s co-worker Theresa Lareau. According to the lawsuit, Lareau called plaintiff a “wacko” and told plaintiff that she prayed to something “that didn’t exist.” On one occasion, after plaintiff complained about profanity, Lareau allegedly told her "I'm sick of your Christian attitude, your Christian [expletive] all over your desk, and your Christian [expletive] all over the place" and Ms. Lareau accused Plaintiff of using her religion for attention.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming she was subjected to a religiously hostile work environment because of her religion. Her employer sought to have the case dismissed on summary judgment, but the District Court denied the City’s motion, allowing the case to proceed to trial. The Court held that "not every allegation of offensive conduct" by Plaintiff's co-workers will ultimately be pertinent to the question [of] whether Ms. Griffin was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her protected status”, but that she had "shown sufficient evidence of religiously discriminatory conduct to make out a claim for hostile work environment religious discrimination as a matter of law."

The Court’s opinion distinguished between profanity that directly implicated religious ideas and profanity that were simple secular epithets. Of note was the Court’s observation that the absence of a hostile intent was not enough to insulate an employer from liability and “if conduct occurred 'because of' a plaintiff's protected status, even if the actor does not intend hostility or even know that the conduct may be perceived as hostile, that conduct is relevant to whether the plaintiff experienced a hostile work environment." The Court also found there was a jury question as to whether the City had taken sufficient action to remedy the alleged religious discrimination.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijman@phelps.com




“Don’t Mess with Texas” . . . the Lone Star State Sues the EEOC over Employers’ Use of Criminal Background Checks


The State of Texas has filed a lawsuit against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging that the federal agency has overstepped its statutory authority by imposing limits on employers’ use of criminal background checks in making employment decisions.
It has been over a year since the EEOC issued strict enforcement guidelines, seeking to limit employers’ ability to make employment decisions based on an individual’s criminal history. The stated rationale for the EEOC’s position is that employers’ reliance on criminal records as a factor in hiring decisions disproportionately affects minorities, who statistically have higher rates of arrest and criminal conviction, and has a disparate impact in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). While not completely banning the use of background checks, the EEOC guidelines place a burden on employers to prove that such reliance is based on business necessity.

The lawsuit by the State of Texas alleges that the EEOC “purports to limit the prerogative of employers, including Texas, to exclude convicted felons from employment” and that the State of Texas and “its constituent agencies have the right to impose categorical bans on the hiring of criminals, and the EEOC has no authority to say otherwise.”

Since the EEOC released the new enforcement guidelines in 2012, it has brought a series of lawsuits against employers, alleging violations of Title VII. However, federal courts have expressed skepticism over the federal agency’s theory of liability and in recent cases, have ruled against the EEOC and in favor of employers. In one such case, a U.S. District Court chastised the EEOC for pursuing a disparate impact discrimination claim based on “a theory in search of facts to support it.”

In its lawsuit, the State of Texas is asking the U.S. District Court to declare that the EEOC’s use of the guidelines are invalid and to enjoin the EEOC from challenging the State’s policy of not hiring convicted felons for certain state jobs.

At the time the EEOC released the stricter guidelines, many legal commentators noted that Congress had never granted the federal agency such rulemaking authority, and that the guidelines were an illegitimate exercise of authority.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com