A rocky on-work affair leads to big trouble for Acme

Aug. 3, 2004
Acme finds itself in trouble when an executive stops doing what comes naturally

Acme Outsourced Services Co. is the first name that comes to mind when most plant managers want to outsource a particularly troublesome maintenance function. During the 11 years Acme has been in business, the firm has been riding a consistently positive growth curve, which many in the firm attribute to the fact that Acme's on-site technicians are the crème de la crème skimmed from the most competent members of the nation's expanding pool of unemployed engineering talent. The fact that Acme's customer service reps and account executives have a knack for developing excellent business relationships certainly doesn't hurt.

Minnie Stronni is a typical example. A long-term employee, she landed her account executive job when one of Acme's partners, a genuine rainmaker whose previous fortune vanished in the dot-com bust, grabbed the first opportunity to bail out, cashed in his Acme stock options and retired to a waterfront mansion on 100 acres in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Afterward, Acme shuffled established sales territories to take up the slack.

Minnie is a quiet-but-assertive, bespectacled, plain-Jane person, but that doesn't detract from her no-nonsense business style. She relies on quiet competence and, in a typical month, spends about two weeks on the road visiting every active account in her six-state territory. Then, she spends another five days developing new business, tracking down leads and inventing and implementing creative ways to meet maintenance decision-makers to demonstrate to them the financial wisdom of being under Acme's protective umbrella. Like almost every other Acme rep lately, Minnie meets her quota of new service contracts, but just barely.

Minnie's supervisor, Viola DeGamba, is a study in contrast. Viola, a tall, blonde, curvaceous, physically fit party girl, favors spandex, miniskirts, flashy jewelry and the judicious use of makeup. But she, too, is hustling just to make her numbers in the four-state territory that came her way in the shuffle. Viola believes Acme's is clearly a relationship business, and her sales approach reflects that belief. She's an outgoing and gracious hostess who wines and dines clients and prospects; finds tickets to sold-out ball games and theater shows; and always remembers names, faces, birthdays, anniversaries and other dates important to the members of her target market.

Beyond that, Viola demonstrates good managerial skill in herding Minnie, Joe and the four other account executives that keep Acme's name in front of plant managers and maintenance professionals across the country.

Al O'Verraugh is Acme's vice president of customer relations. One of the first employees Acme hired a decade ago, Al now oversees Viola and her direct reports as well as field employees who keep customer plants humming and Acme revenue rolling in.

Having to buy out a partner who then took the money and ran depleted Acme's cash reserves by an alarming amount. The denizens of Mahagony Row put the burden of refloating the corporate cash box directly on Al's shoulders. Generally viewed by most Acme employees as an autocratic, pompous stuffed shirt (or worse), Al is under a bit of pressure to make the quarterly numbers and, for some obscure reason, nobody seems inclined to volunteer much help.

It was with a certain sense of sweaty desperation that Al orchestrated the territory shuffle. Change is good, he thought, and new faces would invigorate the sales team and generate even more marketplace buzz. He started traveling with the account executives and participated in joint sales calls in an effort to get closer to the customers.

He felt that if his strategy was sufficiently successful, it would garner him the first of many Acme year-end cash bonuses and stock options. It was with that goal as firmly in mind as obsessive behavior can make it that Al called Viola into his office for a conference.

"I want you to fire Minnie today," Al intoned in his characteristic nasal drawl.

"Why would I want to do that? What did she do?" asked Viola, somewhat dumbstruck by the order.

"As you know," he replied, "revenue from her territory is marginal at best."

"I get the same weekly financial reports you get, Al," replied Viola, "and I interpret her numbers as being perfectly acceptable, given the circumstances. She's got the right work ethic and I see no justification for firing her."

"I really don't care what reasons you use," snapped Al. "Just replace her. Try this on for size. She doesn't present very well. She doesn't have the image we're trying to project. Let's say Minnie doesn't meet my standard for acceptable attractiveness in a position that involves so much customer contact."

"Wait a second," Viola gasped, not believing she heard him correctly. "That's a lame reason, Al. What about my other people? Old Joe Clark, for instance? Does he meet your standards for movie-star quality?"

"Certainly not," Al replied sternly, "but Joe consistently exceeds his quota."

"No, Al," Viola said assertively, her eyes aglare. "I won't fire Minnie without a good reason, and you certainly haven't given me one yet."

"That's insubordination," Al replied through narrowed eyes. "I gave you a direct order, Viola. If Minnie isn't out of here by the end of the day, you better start looking for a job, too."

With that comment ringing in her ears, Viola merely turned, walked out of Al's office and went to the empty cafeteria to calm herself and contemplate Al's threat to her livelihood and career goals at Acme. A few minutes later, Jeanie, Al's administrative assistant, was taking a shortcut through the cafeteria. When she spotted Viola, she made a mid-course correction.

"I heard that conversation between you and Al," she whispered conspiratorially after she sat down at Viola's table. "There's no real privacy at my area. The walls are too thin. I hear everything."

Although Viola tensed up visibly, Jeanie continued. "I thought you should know something," she continued in a whisper. "Remember, Viola, you never heard this from me. Al and Minnie have been having an affair for about six months now. That's how Minnie got a good sales territory. But they had a falling out over something late last week. Now he wants her out of here, pronto."

Viola was stunned. "Thanks for the information, Jeanie," she whispered. "But, how do you know all this?"

"Let's just say," Jeanie explained, "there's a lot us worker bees know that never makes it to the top of the Acme food chain." Jeanie then rose and continued out of the cafeteria as if nothing had happened.

What should Viola do now? How could this situation have been prevented?

An attorney says:

Viola should march herself into the human resource director's office, report what has occurred and (a) save Minnie's job, (b) save her own job, and (c) rescue Acme from an expensive and embarrassing lawsuit. Assuming Acme's investigation results in confirmation of the facts Jeanie relayed, Al's head should be on the chopping block.

This sorry scenario is a classic case of sexual harassment -- boy meets girl at work, boy is girl's supervisor, the relationship ends, girl is fired. Under federal law, if Al had fired Minnie, Acme would have been liable for his unlawful act. It isn't unlawful for two employees to have a voluntary social relationship; it is unlawful sex discrimination for a supervisor to fire an employee because their personal relationship has come to an end. Firing an employee for refusing to continue the relationship is sexual harassment.

Most courts have held that a female employee has no sex discrimination claim when another woman receives special treatment due to her personal relationship with a supervisor, the situation is very different when male employees are assigned a less lucrative territory so that the plum territory can go to the boss' sweetheart. Joe Clark may have a claim of sex discrimination against Acme because Minnie got the juicy territory.

This situation could have been prevented in one of two ways. First, Acme could have better educated its supervisors about sexual harassment and the perils of office romances. Does Acme have a harassment policy? Do supervisors receive harassment training?

Second, Al should have known that office romances, particularly between a supervisor and a subordinate, almost always lead to disaster. Many employers are instituting non-fraternization or "no-dating" policies in an attempt to control the problem.

During the period of an office romance between a supervisor and a subordinate, other employees often perceive that the object of the boss' affection receives preferential treatment. This leads to diminished morale and can cause valuable employees to leave the company. Sometimes, the lovebirds are indiscreet, openly displaying affection in the workplace, which doesn't set a very good example for others.

When the relationship ends, frequently the supervisor doesn't want the subordinate around and terminates him or her. (Yes, there have been cases in which a female boss sexually harasses a male subordinate.) Sometimes, the supervisor's wife finds out about the relationship and demands the termination of the subordinate.

The bottom line is that very little good can ever come of a workplace romance involving two employees at different levels in the organization. Al may pay a high price for a fling.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

Viola must neutralize Al without making herself vulnerable. Here's how she can do just that.

Viola should gather Minnie's last few performance reviews, along with her current performance-to-plan. She should also generate a comparative summary of the performance-to-plan of her direct reports. When she hand-delivers this packet to Al, she should have in her possession another separate yet-to-be-sent document, addressed to Al with a copy to HR. This second document would summarize the entire conversation Al had with her earlier in the day, including her refusal to terminate Minnie and Al's threat to fire Viola in consequence. Using an approach that isn't righteous, indignant or condescending, Viola should explain to Al that she doesn't want to send the second memo, but had to draft it to protect herself. She should explain, in a casual, conciliatory tone, that it would be sent only if he continued to insist that Minnie be terminated.

In this way, Viola makes clear to Al that she has evidence to support her refusal to terminate Minnie, evidence that he doesn't have cause to terminate Minnie; evidence that Minnie's performance aligns with the performance of others, and documentation of his threat against herself. This should be enough to get Al to back off.

If, and only if, Al persists in his retaliatory, adolescent behavior, Viola should explain that unnamed others have for some time been aware of his affair with Minnie, and that this would have to be revealed to upper management if he continues to push for her termination, because Acme could become legally vulnerable.

It's critical that Viola's tone of voice, attitude and posture not be hostile, judgmental or otherwise inflammatory. She'll make more headway if she projects an understanding tone, a frame of mind that acknowledges how uncomfortable de-railed office romances can be, and seeks to calm and reassure Al that with time, everything will settle down. She can also offer to handle the job duties that usually put Al and Minnie in contact with one another.

Of course, Viola could go on the offensive; of course she could report Al and make public everything she knows and has been told. The outcome of that path is not certain though. Each of the three parties could lose. I realize the approach I'm suggesting may make Viola want to gag, but that's not the point. The challenge here is to handle the situation in a way that protects both Minnie and Viola. Doing so will require a level of emotional maturity which, as has already been demonstrated, Al lacks.

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
[email protected]

An academician says:

What's that saying , "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?"

This is a good example of why many companies prohibit "fraternization" between supervisors and the people they supervise. There is simply too much opportunity for some sort of exploitation, including that of a sexual nature, in these types of relationships. In universities such as mine, faculty members are not allowed to date students or party with them, and we even go so far as to keep our office doors open when meeting with students. Acme needs to institute such a rule, or enforce it if they have one in place.

This case smells like one heck of a big lawsuit, particularly if Minnie is fired. My advice to Viola is to keep as far away from Al as possible. This is a no-win situation for her. If she fires Minnie she'll be the target of a lawsuit by Minnie. If she doesn't fire Minnie, she'll be given a lot of grief by Al.

I suppose that one option for Viola would be to simply ignore Al's request and hope that Al will realize his request was improper and forget about the entire incident. But if Viola thinks that Al is dead serious, she should tell the VP of HR about her conversation with Al. Let the VP handle it from that point. That puts her in the clear and relatively free of any retribution either by Al or Minnie, depending on what happens. (If Al gives her grief, she can file a complaint.) Moreover, she'll know in her heart that she did the right thing.

Viola should also realize that whatever she does, things will probably get pretty messy. For example, if she goes to the VP, Al might deny he ever said anything to Viola, which could be a problem. But, then again, Jeanie was an unwilling witness. But Jeanie works for Al, and might be afraid to speak out. We could go on outlining the other possibilities, but the bottom line is that whatever decision Viola makes, it will probably be unpleasant.

My advice to managers and employees in a situation such as this is to first understand that you did nothing wrong and were unfairly placed in the middle of what appears to be an illegal and unethical position by someone else. So, don't feel you have to share any guilt or blame or anxiety over what happens. You did nothing wrong. Secondly, do the right thing. That's the best defense against the unpleasantness of these situations. You didn't cause the problem or ask for the problem but when it ended up in your lap you responded in a moral and ethical manner. In short, you did the right thing, and your conscience is clear.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

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