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Love blooms at work? Isolated romance doesn’t always mean hostile work environment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

When men and women work together, romantic relationships are bound to occur. Even rules that prohibit such relationships—at least between supervisors and subordinates—won’t stop that from happening. But an isolated affair isn’t a legal kiss of death.

If one rogue supervisor pursues a willing subordinate, that doesn’t mean other female employees can successfully sue, alleging a sexually hostile work environment based on perceived favoritism. In fact, before other employees can win a sexual harassment case, the workplace must be so permeated with romantic entanglements that it’s clear women are viewed as mere “playthings.”

A single affair—no matter how unfair it may seem to others not receiving special treatment—does not a hostile work environment make.

Recent case: Cindy and Michele worked for an insurance and risk management company. They went to HR and complained that their boss was carrying on an affair with a co-worker who was his subordinate. They claimed she got favors that other women didn’t get. For example, the woman was allegedly allowed to take long lunch breaks and have lengthy personal phone conversations. They said other women were held to strict break ­limits and restricted phone use.

Cindy and Michele would later allege that when the supervisor found out about their complaint, he began to treat them poorly and eventually had them fired.

The women sued, alleging they had been forced to work in a sexually hostile work environment where those who didn’t turn a blind eye to the affair were punished.

The court first considered whether a single affair could so permeate the workplace with negative stereotypes about women’s role in society and at work to constitute sexual harassment. It said, in this case, it did not.

There was no indication that management tolerated widespread sexual harassment, multiple affairs and other behavior that made women seem like “mere playthings” rather than valuable contributors to the company’s mission. Therefore, no hostile work environment existed.

The women had also complained that the supervisor was “tyrannical” and angry at them for reporting the affair. That alone didn’t amount to retaliation or a hostile work environment, the court explained. The law doesn’t provide for a friction-free environment or make being uncivil the basis for litigation. (Larsen v. Arthur J. Gallagher & Company, No. 13-1506, DC MN, 2013)

Final note: Don’t take this case as permission to ignore sexual har­assment. Ironically perhaps, the greater danger for the employer is that a jilted lover, not co-workers, will successfully sue.

Remember, today’s happy workplace paramour—gladly receiving privileges others don’t get—can easily become tomorrow’s angry former lover. He or she may sue, contending that the affair wasn’t consensual after all and that the supervisor threatened or cajoled until the subordinate submitted to sexual demands.

If you ignore one affair, that merely emboldens other supervisors. Before you know it, you may have a true sexually hostile work environment in which women (or men if the shoe is on the other foot) are treated as lightweight, insubstantial playthings, not valuable employees.

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