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Timing is everything when it comes to workplace romances gone bad and terminations

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

When you terminate an emp­loyee for a good, obvious and well-documented reason, you seldom have to worry about a surprise harassment complaint. Former employees file them fairly frequently, but courts tend to view them with suspicion.

The obvious question: Why didn’t the employee complain about harassment before?

Recent case: Steve Combee was hired at a Circle K store and soon began a six-week, consensual sexual relationship with his new boss. It ended badly, after the two argued.

Combee was fired for yelling at another supervisor while customers and co-workers watched.

Then he called the company harassment hotline to report he had been sexually harassed. He claimed that after their affair ended, his boss had touched his genitals and brushed her breasts against him. Then Combee sued.

The court quickly tossed out his claims. It reasoned that Combee had to counter his former employer’s seemingly reasonable termination decision with something other than speculation that his termination was related to the broken love affair. Plus, he didn’t call the harassment hotline to complain until after he was fired. (Combee v. Circle K Stores, No. 8:11-CV-108, MD FL, 2012)

Note: Hotlines make it easy for employees to report harassment, but they also create employer obligations. Had Combee called the hotline earlier, Circle K would have had to investigate.

Final note: Sexual relationships between supervisors and subordinates pack plenty of potential for legal trouble. Set a policy prohibiting such affairs, and make sure employees know about it.

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