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Tell bosses: Work sexual harassment rules apply to other business relationships, too

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Warn your supervisors and managers: If they sexually harass business associates who aren’t your employees, those associates can sue for sexual harassment, too. The harassment has to meet the same standards as in the employment setting.

Recent case: Suzan Hughes had a son with her husband, Herbalife founder Mark Hughes. Mark Hughes died prematurely after setting up a $350 million trust for his son.

Hughes charged that the trustee sexually harassed her after she asked the trust to pay the rent on a beach house in Malibu. The trustee allegedly called Hughes and suggested that, if she were “nice” to him, he could get the rent payment approved. Later, at a private exhibition of King Tut that Hughes, her son, the trustee and his son attended, the trustee allegedly told her “I’ll get you on your knees eventually, I’m going to f… you one way or another.”

Hughes said the two incidents were sexual harassment.

The court disagreed because neither, even if taken together, would be sexual harassment in the workplace. Therefore, the conduct didn’t amount to sexual harassment between business associates, either. (Hughes v. Pair, No. S157197, Supreme Court of California 2009)

Final note:
The California Supreme Court concluded that the second statement could be interpreted as a comment on how the trustee planned to retaliate against Hughes financially for turning down his earlier advances, rather than as a blatant threat of sexual assault as Hughes claimed the comment was intended.

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