Employment Law Daily OK to fire HR manager who refused to disclose romantic relationship with subordinate
Thursday, September 7, 2017

OK to fire HR manager who refused to disclose romantic relationship with subordinate

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

An employer did not violate Title VII or the FLSA by firing its HR manager for violating company policy when she helped hire a store manager without disclosing their romantic connection and then refused to answer questions about their relationship once employees complained. Affirming dismissal of her gender bias and retaliation claims on summary judgment, the Seventh Circuit found no evidence suggesting that she was treated less favorably than male supervisors who were romantically involved with a subordinate, that she reasonably believed questioning her about her relationship constituted sexual harassment, or that her previous FLSA reports played any role in her termination (Owens v. Old Wisconsin Sausage Co. Inc., August 31, 2017, Rovner, I.).

Failure to disclose. After being hired in June, the HR manager was involved in the hiring of a male store supervisor, with whom she was personally involved. However, she never disclosed their romantic relationship, even after she became his direct supervisor. About a month later, three employees complained that they believed the two were romantically linked and that there was a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, in both July and October 2011, the HR manager had informed management that she believed the employer was in violation of the FLSA in failing to properly pay overtime rates to some employees.

Informal policy. Following the employee complaints, the HR manager and store manager were each asked whether they were in a relationship. The employer did not prohibit inter-employee dating, but had an informal policy to question supervisors in relationships with subordinates in order to avoid conflicts of interest. Once apprised of such a relationship, management would discuss the matter with the supervisor to learn the details of the relationship and take any appropriate steps, such as altering the supervisory relationship.

When the HR manager was questioned in November, she adamantly denied she was in a relationship with the store manager. When asked whether the two had a prior relationship, she stated, “I’m not answering this, this is borderline sexual harassment.” About three weeks later, management informed her that several employees had expressed concern about her objectivity in addressing the store manager’s work performance issues, but she again denied knowing him outside work. Meanwhile, when he was questioned about their relationship, he deflected the question.

Terminated. Though the store manager remained employed, the HR manager was terminated and replaced by another woman. Management initially determined that she was not a proper fit for the HR position, noting several problems with her professionalism and her ability to perform the duties of the position. After the decision to terminate her, her employer produced a memo that indicated several reasons for firing her, included her violation of policy in failing to disclose her relationship with the subordinate.

Policy also applied to male supervisors. The HR manager argued that several actions were discriminatory—including telling her to dress more professionally, suggesting that she lead the Weight Watchers group, asking whether a female employee who was revealing cleavage was dressed inappropriately. Though such evidence was arguably relevant in determining whether women were treated differently than men, many didn’t allow a reasonable inference of such differing treatment.

Her main basis for gender bias was her contention that her refusal to respond to “discriminatory questions” about her relationship with the male store manager led to her termination. However, she failed to present evidence reasonably suggesting that those questions and her subsequent termination were because of her sex. Most importantly, she presented no evidence of a male supervisor who was in an undisclosed relationship with a subordinate and not questioned as to that relationship. Rather, it was undisputed that male supervisors in relationships with subordinates were questioned regarding those relationships.

Moreover, her situation was not comparable to the store manager since he was the subordinate and not the supervisor. Rather, as his supervisor, she was the one in the position to give preferential treatment. She was also one of the two people who made the hiring decision, and despite the clear potential for a conflict of interest, did not disclose her significant personal relationship with him. Finally, the questions about her relationship with him were not discriminatory, but instead addressed an issue of legitimate interest to her employer—potential conflicts caused by a romantic relationship between a supervisor and potential subordinate.

No Title VII retaliation. Her Title VII retaliation claim was also properly dismissed since she failed to present evidence of a good faith and reasonable belief that management’s questioning her about her relationship with the store manager was unlawful sexual harassment. Indeed, she indicated she knew that certain male supervisors were in relationships with subordinates. However, in the only situation in which the relationship was not already known to management, the supervisor was questioned once an “inkling” of the relationship arose.

No causal connection to FLSA reports. Finally, she failed to produce evidence of a causal link between her previous reports of FLSA violations and her termination. Notably, she asserted that she made the same complaint as her male predecessor, who was not fired. She also claimed that she made reported violations on multiple occasions that were temporally unconnected to her firing. Indeed, she received a bonus for her work performance after her FLSA reports were made.

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