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Firing due to ‘romantic tension’: Is it sex bias?

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

When co-worker relationships break up, tensions can boil over in the workplace. Back-stabbing and name-calling may play out in the office—and that may require discipline.

When that happens, investigate thoroughly. But watch out for discipline that looks suspiciously like discrimination against just one of the former lovebirds.

You can’t use sexual or romantic tension as a reason for removing one from the workplace. 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 investigated. Nicholson told them about the broken romance, but it still decided to pull her from flight duty. When the airline didn’t reinstate her, she sued, alleging sex discrimination.

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

Result: The court sent the case to trial, saying there was enough evidence that sexual tension, not objective skills, was the basis for her removal. (Nicholson v. Hyannis Air, No. 08-15959, 9th Cir., 2009)

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