Employers commonly adopt policies prohibiting employees with supervisor/subordinate relationships from continuing in this role after they begin a personal relationship. Last month in an unpublished opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that an employer had not applied this non-fraternization policy on a discriminatory basis to an African-American couple.
In Ayers-Jennings v. Fred's, Inc., the plaintiff married a supervisor in the same warehouse locations where she worked. Although the plaintiff did not directly report to her husband, any warehouse supervisor had the authority to supervise any employee. Upon returning from their honeymoon, the employer told the couple that they had 24 hours to decide which one of them would resign. The wife sued the employer, alleging that three white couples in similar situations were allowed to continue working after they married.
The Sixth Circuit rejected this claim, affirming summary judgment for the employer. The court distinguished the three alleged comparable marriages, noting that in each case, the two employees never had any sort of supervisor/subordinate relationship or faced the potential of one supervising the other. In dismissing the claim, the court criticized the employer for its failure to consider alternatives due to the time pressures placed on the couple. However, it noted that poor human resource practices are not necessarily illegal ones.
Employers should assure that non-fraternization policies are uniformly applied, and that any exceptions made can be explained by clear, non-discriminatory business reasons.