Interested in linking to "Coworkers with benefits"?
You may use the Headline, Deck, Byline and URL of this article on your Web site. To link to this article, select and copy the HTML code below and paste it on your own Web site.
For the past five years, Percy Vierenze was one of several employees working in Acme’s sales and service department handling customer telephone and email questions. The position was perfect for his personality. Percy was gregarious and adept at the small talk that could charm irate customers into a better frame of mind about Acme and its products. Beyond that, he was able to converse intelligently about many diverse topics, thus building friendly relationships among both coworkers and customers with whom he interacted. In fact, some long-term customers specifically asked to be transferred to Percy to handle their business.
After three years on the job, Percy began a consensual, non-coercive sexual relationship with Helen Weals, his supervisor. She went along with the idea willingly in spite of the fact that Percy suffers from a severe case of psoriasis, a chronic immune system disorder that results in dry, rough, patchy spots on the skin. The condition can’t be spread by physical contact and it sometimes can be controlled with treatment.
After about nine months of this friends-with-benefits arrangement, Percy decided he had enough and told Helen that it was over. But she wasn’t about to let that be the case.
When no other employees were present, she tried to make use of her prodigious supply of feminine charms to lure Percy back into more of the rather pleasurable after-work fun and games. Then her approach became a bit more aggressive. Once, slightly tipsy, she pestered him for a kiss during Acme’s Christmas party. At a company picnic, she pressed against him and asked if he missed her. Even in the office, she periodically walked past him and stroked his arm or buttocks surreptitiously. Percy repeatedly told her to cut the nonsense saying, “It’s over. Go away.”
“If a woman had come to Chris and reported sexual harassment, would Chris have discouraged her from complaining?”
These rebuffs only resulted in retaliation. Helen now reprimanded him during departmental meetings, initiated several unwarranted disciplinary reports against him and saw to it that any customer asking for Percy to handle the matter be transferred to her. Nevertheless, Helen didn’t desist in her pursuit of Percy’s amorous attentions. Helen continued to hit on him, and Percy continued to tell her it was over, but to no avail.
Percy complained to the office manager, Chris Mazzong, about Helen’s behavior. Chris was surprised to hear the allegation and discouraged Percy from complaining. Percy finally went to Acme’s HR department to complain, an action that resulted in an investigation, during which Chris told Helen that Acme would not tolerate that sort of sexual harassment among employees. Percy considered that response to be inadequate.
Percy took his complaint about the sexual harassment to Acme’s HR department and filed an EEOC charge regarding the disability discrimination. When this twist hit the office grapevine, his work life became abusive and difficult. After a particularly nasty morning, he left work in the middle of his shift. He was fired the next day for that move.
Percy then sued Acme and some of the managers and claimed he was the victim of Helen’s sexual harassment and Acme failed to accommodate his disability, the psoriasis.
How could this situation have been prevented? Let us know what you think.
The case illustrates why many companies prohibit, or frown upon, romantic relations between supervisors and employees. Such liaisons simply leave too much opportunity for abuse of power, either by showing favoritism, or more frequently by some form of discrimination. And, it makes no difference if the supervisor is male or female. So, Rule No. 1 of prevention is: “Don’t let it happen, and clamp down on it quickly if it becomes evident.”
But it did happen, so what now? While this is an interesting lawyer case and I am not a lawyer, my take is that the issue isn’t whether Helen fostered a hostile work environment, but whether Acme’s response was adequate. Certainly, Chris’ suggestion to not complain was inadequate. Bad move. However, the actions by HR are typical — conduct an investigation, decide if the charges are valid and take action if they are. HR ordered Helen to stop, and, if she did, HR probably has done its job. Percy probably wanted her to be fired. However, that usually doesn’t occur except in extreme cases.
As to accommodating Percy because of his psoriasis, it was Percy’s responsibility to inform Acme regarding what accommodations might be needed because of his disability. Apparently, he didn’t, and Acme can’t be held accountable for something they didn’t know was needed.
Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682, email@example.com
Acme should have had a written policy to address supervisors having romantic relationships with subordinates. Supervisors should be required to inform management when they’re involved in a romantic relationship with subordinates. The policy should be communicated with all employees and failure to comply should be grounds for disciplinary action. When management is informed of a romantic relationship, it should make every effort to transfer one of the employees to another position within the company.