Most employers officially or unofficially ban personal relationships between managers and employees they supervise for good business and legal reasons. If these relationships deteriorate, they can present serious performance and legal problems for the employer due to the continuing supervisor/subordinate status. A recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision limited a subordinate employee’s ability to claim retaliation when he tried to end the affair.
In Tate v. Executive Mgm’t Servs., the plaintiff allegedly became involved in a consensual affair with his female supervisor. He claimed that he tried to end the affair once he got married, but that his supervisor threatened to have him fired if he discontinued the relationship. He sued, claiming sexual harassment and retaliation under Title VII. The jury found no harassment, but awarded the plaintiff damages based upon his retaliatory termination claim.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed the retaliation verdict. The court concluded that the plaintiff had not engaged in protected activity upon which a retaliation claim could be based. His alleged attempts to end the consensual affair did not constitute opposition of any employer practice that violated Title VII. His actions were based on his desire to end the relationship, and not upon any belief that his supervisor’s actions were illegal.
Two federal appellate courts that previously looked at this issue reached opposite conclusions. Employers could contend that personal disputes between two employees engaged in an affair do not create Title VII liability for the employer. However, when the affair spills over into the workplace, and especially when the relationship involves a supervisor/subordinate relationship, the prudent course of action is to treat the issue under the procedures contained in the employer’s harassment policy.