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It’s February, and love is in the air—or is it harassment?

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Because most people spend an awful lot of their waking time at the office or workplace, many romantic relationships start there. Although it might be tempting, it would be virtually impossible to ban flirtation and its natural culmination—a relationship or rejection—just because the parties met at work.

That said, you certainly need clear rules against supervisor-subordinate relationships. They can spell real trouble if the supervisor is pushing for a relationship and the subordinate doesn’t want it. If the supervisor threatens to withhold a work benefit, or to demote or fire the employee for refusing the advances, then the company will have a serious problem.

But what if the harassed employee actually welcomes a supervisor’s advances—at least for a while?

Recent case: Recent college grad Amy Kraus signed up for a temporary job through an employment agency. She took a six-month assignment as an administrative assistant at Cingular Wireless in the engineering department. Joseph Ruiz supervised her.

A few months into Kraus’ job, Ruiz began making sexually suggestive comments to her. First, he told her in the office break room that he had had a sexual dream about her the night before. What followed was a long instant message (IM) dialogue between the two, exploring the dream and whether Kraus might be interested in a sexual relationship. Most cell phones and computers are set up to send and receive such text messages.

The IM conversations continued over the next few weeks until Kraus tired of the flirtation, stopped coming to work and filed a sexual harassment lawsuit.

When the case got to court, Cingular was able to show that Kraus had been a willing participant in the banter. That’s because the company electronically retrieved all the IMs the two had exchanged—and introduced them as evidence. Other than a verbal confrontation at the office after Kraus told Ruiz she wanted to stop the text messaging, there was no other evidence that this was more than sexual flirtation.

The judge dismissed the case, explaining that the conduct wasn’t severe or pervasive enough to create a sexually harassing environment. Finally, the court rejected Kraus’ claim based on Ruiz’s alleged promise of a permanent job in exchange for sex, which she never received. The court noted that the job Kraus held wasn’t slated for permanent status. (Kraus v. Howroyd-Wright Employment Agency, et al., No. 06-975, ED PA, 2008)

Final note: Note that the employer was able to obtain a complete transcript of the instant messages the two exchanged. You may be able to do the same even if you aren’t a telecommunications giant. Alert your attorney as soon as you know that text messaging played a role. He or she can try to secure copies of the “conversations.”

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