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Boss’s affair isn’t grounds for employee suit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

It’s a misconception that anytime a supervisor has a romantic relationship with an employee, other employees can sue for sex discrimination.

If that were the case, employers could be held liable for any number of legitimate (or unsavory) relationships between employees or even with outsiders. That would drastically increase the number of sexual harassment lawsuits.

Recent case: Betty Foster ran an animal shelter for the Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County until the organization’s president fired her for poor performance. Foster fired back with a lawsuit alleging that she had been forced to work in a sexually hostile environment and was the victim of sex discrimination.

The basis for Foster’s claims was that the president, a woman, was allegedly having an affair with a man who was a major donor. According to the lawsuit, that donor would often tell Foster how to run the shelter. If Foster protested, the man would complain to the president, who would in turn override Foster’s decisions in favor of those suggested by her paramour.

But the court threw out Foster’s suit. It looked at past cases in which supervisors had affairs with subordinates and then gave preferential treatment to their lovers. Courts consistently have ruled that employees who didn’t receive favors can’t sue for sex discrimination because their gender has nothing to do with their treatment. Simply put, both men and women are equally affected because they are not the paramour. Their sex is irrelevant.

The court applied that reasoning to this case, ruling that Foster’s case was even weaker because the donor wasn’t even an employee. (Foster v. The Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County, No. 09-CV-6569, WD NY, 2010)

Final note: There are good reasons to ban relationships between supervisors and subordinates or relationships with outsiders that affect business. Poor morale is one.

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