Marriage, Romance, Lawsuit - Why Every Employer Needs EPLI
Valentine’s Day is approaching, and that means it’s time for our annual look at office romance.
A survey found that 51% of office workers have admitted to having an office romance at one time in their careers. Alas, not all love stories have happy endings. A few end up in court. When they do, these cases can highlight an important law, employer mistake and/or the value of Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI).
Here is a love story that highlighted all three. A married manager was engaged in a year-long affair with an indirect subordinate. They met off the work premises during lunch or break times but used their employer’s email and phones to make arrangements. After the employer got wind of the relationship and conducted an investigation, the manager was terminated. A letter to the manager cited many reasons for termination, including his “extramarital” affair and conduct “while…married.”
The fired manager shot back by suing his employer for, among other things, discrimination on the basis of marital status. He pointed to the letter citing “extramarital” relations as evidence that his marital status was a substantial factor in the termination. At the heart of the matter was the state’s discrimination law prohibiting adverse action against an employee on the basis of marital status.
We all know that race, gender, age, religion, disability and national origin are protected classes under federal and state laws. But in a handful of states, including the one where this employer (a school) was located, employees cannot be fired based on whether or not they are married. If the employer had not cited “extramarital” conduct in the termination letter, it might have been the end of the (legal) affair. Because the employer's letter made gratuitous references to the manager’s marital status, the plaintiff's case avoided dismissal and headed to a jury.
What could the employer have done to avert a lawsuit? With an EPLI policy through our program, a variety of free tools are available to insurers and insureds that can help:
- Risk Management Website with workplace policies, training and compliance tips
- Legal Hotline with guidance from employment law experts
- State laws and other educational materials
Had the employer called a Legal Hotline before taking action against the married manager, the claim might have been avoided altogether. An attorney could have discussed the do's and don'ts of investigations and termination letters, as well as the laws in the state. Mention of marital status could have been removed. We have seen many instances where our hotline or website stopped a problem before it became an EPLI claim.
It’s not all gloom and doom for workplace romance. Did you know that 10% of all workplace affairs result in a walk down the aisle? On the other hand, a larger number end in career setbacks or broken marriages.
Whatever the consequences, workplace romance is alive and well as it has always been and probably always will be. In fact, I see flowers being delivered to someone right now...
1. Finding Love at Work Is More Acceptable Than Ever, Vault Blogs.
2. Busey v. Richland School District, No. 2:13-Cv-5022-TOR, E.D. Wash. 2015.