Thursday, February 14, 2008

When office romances go bad

Office Romances I've previously given some guidance for companies on dealing with office romances. This week's Business Week Magazine covers the same topic from a cautinary perspective. Business Week cautions, "If you're thinking about hooking up at work, you're looking for love in all the wrong places." The article explains:

The odds against an office romance succeeding are just slightly better than what you'd find at the worst casino in Las Vegas. When you lose at roulette or keno, though, you're out only a couple of bucks (if you're smart), and that's the end of it. When you lose the game of love at the office, you still have to face the other person day after day. That constant reminder of a relationship that didn't work out is a painful burden to bear, and it can affect how well you are able to do your job, which is the main, if not sole, reason we're employed in the first place.

On this Valentine's Day, I thought I'd pick up the theme from the Business Week article and take a look at an example, courtesy of the 7th Circuit's decision in Benders v. Bellows & Bellows, of some of the problems a company might face when an office romance goes south.

Bellows & Bellows is a Chicago law firm that concentrates in, of all things, employment law. The two Bellows, Joel and Laurel, are husband and wife. In 1996, B&B hired Evelyn Benders, an African-American women then in her 40s, as a legal secretary; she was promoted to office manager the following year. Shortly after she started with the firm, Benders started a five-year relationship with Mr. Bellows. Benders remained employed after the relationship ended.

Approximately two years after the break-up, in May 2003, Mr. Bellows privately informs Benders that his wife and another partner were "campaigning to get [her] out" and that she should begin to look for another job. A few weeks later, B&B hired a white woman 10 years Benders' junior who began to take over some her of responsibilities. In February 2004, Benders filed an age and race discrimination charge with the EEOC relating to the new hire and her loss of responsibilities. Attached to her charge were e-mails authored by her former lover referring to Benders as "Seabiscuit" who "should have been put down" long ago, and stating that other African-American members of the office staff were making Benders' employment situation "a racial thing."

After Benders filed the charge, she claims that Mr. Bellows became increasingly hostile towards her and made her working conditions difficult. According to B&B, however, it was Benders who caused problems by becoming disruptive and insubordinate, not actively seeking other employment, and not performing certain job duties. Three days after B&B filed its position statement with the EEOC, Benders alleges that Mr. Bellows told her that because she had filed an "awful EEOC charge" he would not consider paying her any severance.

Five days later B&B finally terminated Benders' employment. According to B&B, Benders was asked to leave because a day earlier she had become hostile with Mrs. Bellows, who subsequently told her husband that she would not come to the office until Benders was fired. Benders' retaliation claim followed shortly thereafter.

Ultimately, the appellate court reversed the trial court's dismissal of Benders' retaliation claim on summary judgment. Specifically, the Court found that Mr. Bellow's comment about her "awful EEOC charge" coupled with her termination five days later created a factual issue on the issue of causation, whether there was a nexus between her EEOC charge and the termination. Also, the Court found enough of a factual dispute on whether Benders was actually under-performing and acting insubordinately.

While the opinion is not clear, it's pretty apparent that Mrs. Bellows knew about her husband's dalliance with Benders and wanted to rid her business of her husband's former lover. Can anyone really doubt that the broken relationship had something to do with Benders' demotion and subsequent termination? This case paints a picture of some of the dangers associated with office romances. The problems in this case were exacerbated by the fact that it involved an executive and a staff member. Relationships between co-workers are less tricky, but still pose their own problems. Because it is not illegal for co-workers to be romantically involved, how a company handles these issues is organizational. But, if a company is going to permit intra-office romances, it is best that it does so with eyes wide open, in tune to the various legal issues that can arise if a romance goes bad, as the Benders case points out.