While they may make other employees uncomfortable and probably shouldn’t be encouraged, affairs between co-workers (or even between supervisors and subordinates) don’t always mean the rest of the work force is laboring in a hostile work environment.
If you set reasonable rules concerning dating and make sure there’s no favoritism when it comes to promotions, benefits and the like, chances are an isolated affair won’t lead to the courthouse.
Recent case: Renee Lancaster worked for the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department as a patrol officer. She heard rumors that a certain male sergeant was having affairs with women in the workplace. She also claimed he was sexually harassing other women. There was no evidence, however, that Lancaster herself had been sexually harassed, nor that any flirtatious or other suggestive behavior had taken place in her presence or had been directed at her.
When she sued the county, she threw in a claim that she worked in a sexually hostile environment because of the sergeant’s alleged affairs. But the court dismissed the claim, reasoning that none of the behavior she complained about, even if she could prove it, rose to the level that existed in Miller v. Department of Corrections, the landmark California Supreme Court case on hostile work environments arising from consensual affairs between supervisors and subordinates.
The behavior, the court said, must send “the demeaning message … to female employees that they are viewed byas ‘sexual playthings’ or that the way required for women to get ahead in the workplace is by engaging in sexual conduct with their supervisors or management.” (Lancaster v. County of Yolo, No. S-03-2342, ED CA, 2007)
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