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Responding to an office affair? Don’t forget the ‘fair’ part

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

by Mindy Chapman, Esq.

When an office romance is in full bloom, it’s a tough secret to keep from the perceptive masses. But how’s an employer supposed to respond when an affair causes turmoil in the workplace? This court decision offers a good warning: Don’t discipline one partner but not the other.

Case in Point: Roxanne Ruppel, a front-office clerk for a city office in Missouri, began having a consensual affair with the city’s mayor, Jeff Whitteaker.

Both were married, but neither made a concerted effort to hide the relationship.

Some city aldermen became concerned with the “turmoil” the relationship was causing in the workplace, including an incident in which the mayor’s wife confronted Ruppel in the office.

One of the aldermen told the mayor he was going to “do him a favor.” The alderman disciplined Ruppel for something she had done two months earlier. But, the mayor removed the discipline from her file.

Next, the aldermen voted to have Ruppel’s position reduced to part-time without benefits for “budgetary reasons,” even though there had been no budget cuts. Finally, the city just flat out fired her.

Ruppel sued the city for gender discrimination because she was disciplined and terminated while the mayor was not.

The result: While a lower court tossed out the case, the appellate court reversed and sent it to trial. It said all Ruppel had to prove was that “a protected characteristic was a contributing factor in the employment decision.” (Ruppel v. Valley Park, Mo. Ct. App.)

Important side note: The judge in this ruling made a point to say that employment cases should usually get a chance to go before juries because they are “inherently fact-based and often depend upon inferences, not on direct evidence.”

This mindset is important for companies to recognize because once a discrimination claim is made, judges are more likely to send it to a jury to be resolved. This means more protracted litigation, which is a drain on time and money—and a big business distraction.

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court 

1. Be fair. Squeezing someone out of a job for fake reasons will be quickly recognized by the court as pretext. Don’t even try.

2. Act consistently. If you discipline one, you must discipline all who are engaged in the same behavior.

3. Have policies. If there was a “no-fraternization policy,” there would have been a real reason to take employment action.

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Author: Mindy Chapman is an attorney and  president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial. Sign up to receive her blog postings at BusinessManagementDaily.com/Mindy.

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