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When workplace romance fizzles, watch out for discipline that looks like discrimination

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

It’s not a shocking surprise that co-workers sometimes engage in romantic and sexual relationships with each other. When people spend lots of time together, liaisons are almost inevitable.

It’s also no surprise that when co-worker relationships break up, tensions can boil over in the workplace. And when an ugly situation creates a need for discipline, things get sticky for employers.

Be wary of any discipline that targets just one of the former lovebirds. You can’t use sexual or romantic tension as a reason for removing one from the workplace, for example. As the following case shows, doing so can lead to a sex discrimination lawsuit.

Recent case: Tiffany Nicholson, who worked for a small airline as a pilot, had a sexual relationship with another pilot. The affair lasted about a year. She then allegedly began seeing another pilot.

About the same time, her original lover began reporting that Nicholson’s flying skills were poor and that she had trouble communicating in the cockpit. Management pulled her from flight duty, and she told them about the broken romance.

When the airline didn’t reinstate her, she sued, alleging sex discrimination.

She pointed out that her skills had been highly rated until the breakup. She noted that male pilots who allegedly had poor skills received remedial training while she did not.

The 9th Circuit said Nicholson deserved a jury trial because there was enough evidence that sexual tension, not objective skills, was the basis for her removal. It emphasized that the complaints against her were based on subjective observations rather than solid evidence. (Nicholson v. Hyannis Air, No. 08-15959, 9th Cir., 2009)

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