Workplace rules exist for a reason. For example, if you have a rule prohibiting supervisors from dating subordinates, you’re probably trying to prevent sexual harassment claims.
After all, relationships often sour. And anytime someone in a relationship has a power position, it’s possible that the relationship isn’t truly voluntary.
At the very least, after the end of the affair, employers risk that the jilted employee will claim it was sexual harassment rather than a consensual relationship.
But what if you suspect a supervisor/subordinate relationship, but the two people deny it? You probably can’t do anything more than reiterate the rules.
If it turns out the supervisor lied, you can certainly terminate him or her—both for breaking the rule and then lying about it.
Recent case: Arlester Jones, who is black, worked as a supervisor for Dole Foods after being selected for promotion by his boss. For several years, he received good evaluations and regular raises.
Then several of his employees complained that Jones appeared to be engaging in a personal relationship with a subordinate. The employees explained that the two took vacation at the same time, flirted with each other and generally acted as if they were involved in a romantic relationship.
Jones’ boss confronted him with the allegations and explained the company rule against dating subordinates. He even told Jones that if he wanted to date the individual in question, one of them could be transferred to another section. Then, their relationship wouldn’t break any rules.
Jones denied the relationship existed.
Much later, someone turned over an email Jones apparently wrote to the woman and left on a printer. The email indicated that the two had recently ended their relationship. Dole terminated Jones for breaking the rule and lying about it.
Jones sued, alleging that the real reason he was terminated was because the woman is white and he is black.
But the court didn’t buy it. Instead, it upheld the discharge and dismissed the case. (Jones v. Dole Food Company, No. 3:10-CV-292, WD NC, 2011)
- Court: No tacking wrongful discharge claims onto FMLA suit
- Track all discipline so you can show harsh punishment wasn't retaliation
- Instruct supervisors: Mum's the word on discharge
- Review severance pact for clarity; define 'for cause' terminations