Feb 18, 201309:42 AMForward HR
with Diane Hamilton and Nilesh Patel
Work is a battlefield when small business owners romance an employee
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Valentine’s Day always brings up the question of whether office romances should be banned. While a flat-out ban is not a necessity, employers need to worry when a supervisor gets involved with a direct report. If the employee feels mistreated, a sexual harassment complaint and lawsuit are just waiting to happen. The possibility of legal trouble is even more likely in a small business, when an owner gets involved with an employee.
In Johnson v. Roma II, a Wisconsin restaurant owner found out the hard way why this line should not be crossed. The owner had an almost two-year relationship with his restaurant manager. The end of the relationship brought a theft charge against the employee, claims of rape and sexual harassment against the owner, and a roller coaster of a lawsuit that has been compared to a messy divorce.
The troubles between the two started when the owner looked at the finances and noticed $18,000 in debt owed to vendors. The employee was also ordering supplies that were inconsistent with the level of sales. When confronted with questions, the employee could not offer any explanation. She quit and allegedly took restaurant supplies with her, which led to the owner filing criminal charges. On the other hand, the employee claimed the owner had raped her and had sexually harassed her. She also filed a claim for $9,500 in unpaid wages.
The Department of Workforce Development awarded the employee about $8,100 as unpaid wages. It appears the owner failed to appeal the award and instead chose to ignore it. This made the problem even worse. What should have been an $8,100 cost led to a lawsuit that so far has involved a default judgment against the employer, an appeal and reversal, a jury trial, a retrial in favor of the employee, an appeal to contest attorney fees, and now further proceedings before the trial court that may produce yet another appeal. In addition to his own legal costs, the owner may owe over $100,000 in legal costs to the employee’s attorney.
The rape and sexual harassment charges serve as sufficient reasons why owners should not get involved with employees. Any souring of the relationship will put the owner in a bind when supervising, disciplining, or terminating that employee. The person could easily claim the relationship was actually sexual harassment or there was retaliation for ending the relationship. In addition, an owner may not supervise an employee’s work properly during a relationship.
This case is instructive in other ways: