Coworkers with benefits

In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme learns some of the finer points of workplace romance.

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.

An academician says:

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, hjohnso@luc.edu

A facilities management consultant says:

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.

Even if the policy didn’t exist or wasn’t enforced, Acme had one chance to prevent a problem. The office manager didn’t take Percy’s initial complaint seriously enough. A thorough investigation at that time should have exposed Helen’s actions, and the company could have dealt with her before it was too late. Instead, the company allowed Helen to continue to harass Percy and his status within the company was compromised.

The human resources department’s reprimand of Helen might have seemed inadequate to Percy, but he didn’t appear to give it a chance to work. His subsequent actions, including walking off the job, weakened his position. Percy’s firing was the culmination of an unfortunate series of events that cost Acme a good employee and will force it to spend valuable time and money defending itself in the courts.

Dean A. Wallace, President
Applied Facility Solutions, dean@appliedfacilitysolutions.com

A plant engineer says:

This situation could have been avoided if Chris, Acme’s office manager, would have done his job. If a woman had come to Chris and reported sexual harassment, would Chris have discouraged her from complaining? When HR received the complaint, would they have failed to remove the offending employee from the payroll and reprimand the office manager for failing to follow up on such an important matter? I seriously doubt it. Sexual harassment can happen to men as it can to women, and the response should be as quick for either. I don’t believe that Acme should have a policy that prohibits its employees from dating or tries to control employee contact after hours, but during working hours that conduct is controlled by policy and law.

I don’t understand why Percy would claim that Acme failed to accommodate his disability, the psoriasis. From what we read in the account of Percy and Helen, it never was an issue. I believe Percy has a good case for the sexual harassment claim but not a leg to stand on concerning a disability claim.

Jeffrey L. Strasser, Plant Engineer
Bacova Guild, strasser.jeff@bacova.com

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