September 27, 2013

The Big Bang and the office dating game

Posted in Discrimination, Gender / Sex, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Office Dating, Sexual Harassment, Workplace Romance tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:47 am by Tom Jacobson

Raj & Mrs Davis

Raj & Mrs. Davis commiserate

In case you missed the season premier of The Big Bang Theory , it looks like romance may be on the horizon for Raj and the university’s Director of Employee Relations, Mrs. Davis. If that storyline goes anywhere, it will undoubtedly be fodder for many of my posts over the next few months, including this one.

In this episode, Raj has recently broken up with his girlfriend, and Mrs. Davis’ marriage is apparently on the rocks. The two of them hit it off well at a work party, so it doesn’t take a theoretical physicist to hypothesize where this is headed.

Workplace romance is nothing new, but it can be very difficult to manage. Take, for example, the recent case of Larson v. Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., where two female employees sued their employer for sexual harassment and related claims. Their claims were based on allegations that their manager had a practice of engaging in consensual but sexually inappropriate relationships with female employees, which led the manager to exhibit favoritism toward his paramours and those who supported (or did not disapprove of) his relationships. The plaintiffs also claimed the employer retaliated against them after they reported their concerns about these relationships.

The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota ultimately dismissed these claims after finding that the plaintiffs could not show widespread sexual favoritism or that men were treated differently than women. Regarding the retaliation claim, the court ruled that the plaintiffs could not have had an objectively reasonable belief that their employer broke the law; therefore they did not engage in protected activity when they reported their concerns.

What you need to know: Although the Larson case was dismissed, the parties no doubt spent considerable time and money litigating the issues. And the fact that this all led to an expensive lawsuit suggests that the overall workplace environment at this company was unhealthy. Perhaps they could have altogether avoided the angst and litigation with an office dating/relationship policy addressing topics such as:

  • The impact of such relationships on the work environment;
  • The types of relationships that are allowed or prohibited;
  • The right to say “no” if the relationship is or becomes undesired;
  • Employee’s options if feeling pressured to start or continue such a relationship;
  • Consequences if the relationship is between a superior and subordinate;
  • Employer’s options to change or end the working relationships of employees who are involved in romantic/dating relationships.

Office relationships can develop into romance, and when they do, they can be very difficult to manage. Implementing an appropriate workplace dating/relationship policy may ease the heartache. For more information about how to handle them, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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May 17, 2012

Sex-based Hostile Work Environment Claims Clarified by MN Supreme Court

Posted in Discrimination, Gender / Sex, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Sexual Harassment tagged , , , , , , at 11:58 am by Tom Jacobson

The term “hostile work environment” is one of the most commonly misunderstood terms in the world of employment law. For example, I’ve heard many employees complain that they work in a hostile environment because their boss is a jerk or because their co-workers are mean to them. While such an environment may indeed be hostile, hostility is generally not a sufficient basis for a legal challenge unless it is based on a person’s protected classification, such as his or her sex.

But even when it comes to sex-based hostile work environment claims, there has been a lingering question: If a person is targeted with hostility because of his/her sex, but the hostility is not sexual in nature (for example, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature), may the sex-based hostility be the basis of a hostile work environment claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA)?  The Minnesota Supreme Court has now answered that question in the affirmative.

In the case of LaMont v. Independent School District #728, which the Court decided on May 16, 2012 Carol LaMont was employed as a custodian by Independent School District #728 in Elk River, MN. LaMont was supervised by a male, Doug Miner, who she claimed made frequent comments about his negative view of women in the workplace. LaMont also claimed that Miner treated men and women differently regarding certain terms and conditions of employment. She did not allege that Miner’s conduct was sexual in nature.  Relying on the MHRA, LaMont sued the school district based on a hostile work environment sex discrimination theory.

As a threshold issue, the Court had to decide whether a hostile work environment claim under the MHRA can be based on harassing conduct that is based on sex, even if the offending conduct is not sexual. To reach its decision, the Court first noted that the MHRA’s definition of discrimination “does not limit claims of a hostile work environment to sexual harassment.”  The Court then noted how in prior cases, it had recognized that “sexual harassment is just one form of  hostile work environment that constitutes sex discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.” Finally, the Court found support from federal cases interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ultimately, the Court said:

For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the MHRA permits a hostile work  environment claim based on sex. We hold that verbal and physical harassment directed at an employee because of her sex may constitute discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.

Turning then to the specific allegations in the LaMont case, the Court found that even though these types of claims can be brought under the MHRA, Lamont’s allegations were not enough to support a claim under the law.

What you need to know:  Even though Lamont ultimately lost, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in her case that a hostile work environment claim under the MHRA can be based on harassing conduct that is based on sex, even if the offending conduct is not sexual. This makes it even more important for employers to adopt and enforce policies which prohibit sex discrimination.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

February 8, 2012

Love … it’s a burning thing

Posted in Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Office Romance - Dating, Sexual Harassment tagged , , , , , , at 10:34 am by Tom Jacobson

“Love. It’s a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring.
Bound by wild desire,
I fell into a ring of fire.”

Johnny Cash, Ring of Fire

Valentine’s Day is next week.  At the risk of seeming to shoot Cupid out of the sky, I think that makes it a good time to consider the consequences of office romance.

Consensual relationships which are, or have the potential of becoming intimate, sexual or romantic in nature sometimes develop between employees. Because such relationships may make other employees and those involved in the relationship uncomfortable, they can increase an employer’s risk of liability for sexual harassment and other claims.

What you need to know:  Yes, love truly is a burning thing.  But, if an employer does not properly handle office romances, it is the company that can get burned. Therefore, employers should discourage those relationships, particularly those between a supervisor and subordinate and those in which differences in age, background, or other characteristics of the two individuals compromise the ability of either one to make an informed decision about participating in the relationship.  Employers should also adopt policies which clearly describe their employees’ obligations, rights and options when workplace romance ignites … or burns out.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2011 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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