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When Office Romance Leads to Workplace Discrimination

Office romance can create all types of disturbances that affect employees in various ways. In some situations, a supervisor may give preferential treatment to his or her sexual partner. When other employees who do not have that same relationship do not receive the same treatment, they are likely to file a claim for discrimination. Another situation that more often arises is when an office romance ends and the supervisor starts treating their ex less favorably. In fact, threats of discipline or termination could occur. Consider this case out of Minnesota.


Discrimination Claims Against Regus Management Group, LLC.


According to the lawsuit, a female employee of Regus Management Group, LLC was romantically involved with her direct supervisor beginning in 2012. In 2014, the female employee ended the relationship and her supervisor did not take it well. He continued to pursue the employee while they still worked together.


The employee states that her supervisor was being more controlling and treated her worse than the other female coworkers. Specifically, the supervisor threatened to place her on a coaching plan which could likely lead to her termination. At this point, the female employee spoke to the HR director, disclosed her previous relationship with her supervisor and then reported the actions he had taken since the relationship ended.


HR Conducts an Investigation


The HR department conducted an investigation of the employee’s claims and the supervisor’s alleged conduct. Ultimately, it was determined that the supervisor's conduct was not improper. Nonetheless, they warned him about his actions. They also made changes so that the female employee reported to a different supervisor for performance purposes. Despite these steps, the employee claimed in her lawsuit that her former supervisor’s treatment of her worsened.


Female Employee’s Termination


After the employee’s complaints to HR and the subsequent investigation, she claims her former supervisor treated her worse than before. He limited her holiday party budget to less than others and then placed her on a performance improvement plan when she exceeded that budget. A few months after she was placed on the plan, she was terminated. Her employer claimed she was let go as part of a reduction in force.


Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment Claims


In addition to filing harassment claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, the female employee brought claims under Title VII as well, alleging quid pro quo sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, and retaliation. Quid pro quo sexual harassment requires a showing of unwelcome sexual harassment, including requests for sexual favors, and when the subject employee refuses, it results in an adverse employment action. On the other hand, a hostile work environment occurs when sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with the victim employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating and hostile work environment.

The Employer’s Defense


The employer, in this case, argued that the supervisor never threatened the female employee’s position, nor did he seek sexual favors giving her an ultimatum if she chose not to comply. They also argue that she was only terminated based on objective standards used nationwide during their company-wide reduction in force.
However, the court found that there was sufficient evidence that the female employee’s refusal to continue the relationship and/or her harassment complaint to HR played a role in her supervisor’s treatment of her. The court also reasoned that his actions regarding the holiday party budget may have lead to her termination, which was a tangible adverse employment action she suffered as a consequence.


Hostile Work Environment Claim Dismissed


On the other hand, the court found that the relationship at issue was consensual initially and that there was no physical contact after the relationship ended. Nor was there evidence that the supervisor used any inappropriate language, sexual or intimidating comments to the female employee. Consequently, the court dismissed her hostile work environment claim.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!