Friday, May 2, 2008

The softer side of employment law

Ellis v. United Parcel Service, decided this week by the 7th Circuit, is legally interesting in its dealing with the issues of interracial dating, race discrimination, and the ultimate lawfulness of UPS's termination of a manager for violating its nonfraternization policy. What's more interesting to me, though, is the Court's cautionary words on the issue of whether a nonfraternization policy makes good business sense:

In closing, we emphasize that our decision today should not be construed as an endorsement of the UPS nonfraternization policy. When a company like UPS runs expensive ads that ask "What can Brown do for you?" it might be wise for it to ask if this policy is really worth all of the fuss this case has created. As we observed in Hennessy v. Penril Datacomm Networks, Inc., 69 F.3d 1344, 1353 (7th Cir. 1995):

As the work force grows and people spend more of their time at work, the workplace inevitably becomes fertile ground for the dating and mating game. It is certainly not unusual, and it may even be desirable, for love to bloom in the workplace. Contiguity can lead to sexual interest, which can lead to soft music, candlelight dinners, serious romance, and marriage, or any stops along the way.

By all accounts, Ellis was a good employee. He started with UPS as a driver right out of high school in 1979 and worked his way up to a managerial position. After 21 years with the company he met a woman, apparently fell in love, and, after a 4-year relationship, got engaged. A year later he got married. That's a fairly nice story, and so is the fact that Ellis and his wife were smooching at a summer concert several months after their wedding. Heck, some marriages today don’t even last that long. Although UPS, for the reasons we have stated, comes out on top in this case, love and marriage are the losers. Something just doesn't seem quite right about that.

When implementing employment policies, there are legal considerations and human considerations. I too often write about the perils employers face when ignoring the former. The Ellis case is a good reminder that employers face different dangers, such a poor retention and lackluster morale, when they ignore the latter.