By Jeffrey R. Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Co-workers spend a lot of time together. That can lead to friendships and, sometimes, even more. It can get dicey, however, when relationships get into the territory of conflict of interest or sexual harassment. Harassment is usually considered unwelcome behaviour, but if it’s only unwelcome after the fact, should it be considered harassment?
Recently, David Davidar resigned as president of publisher Penguin Canada over a relationship with Lisa Rundle, a former employee who had an office beside his. Davidar had apparently had what he called a “consensual, flirtatious relationship” for five years with Rundle that grew out of a close friendship they had at work. During the relationship, Rundle asked him for a raise. Penguin had a salary freeze at the time, so he gave her a promotion.
Davidar, who is married, said he ended the relationship out of concern for his family. However, soon after, Rundle said she didn’t want the promotion and sued him for sexual harassment. She said he often leered at and stalked her. In October 2009, she said he forced his way into her hotel room and kissed her at a book fair.
Davidar’s predicament highlights the risks that can come with pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship with someone at work. In particular, Davidar showed bad judgment in taking what was a close friendship with a subordinate to the next level. Indeed, the fact she asked him for a raise and he gave her a promotion to get around a salary freeze showed there was a conflict of interest, which demands some sort of sanction. However, was it sexual harassment?
We obviously don’t know all the details and it’s a “he said/she said” scenario as to what really happened, but if the two were in a consensual relationship, is it sexual harassment? Though Davidar was Rundle’s superior, she was not a low-level employee and considering she asked him for a raise and got a promotion, perhaps she was exploiting him a little bit. It’s also curious that, after the alleged hotel incident, she continued to spend time with him, reportedly hanging out in his office to watch Australian Open tennis in January 2010. Her harassment claim didn’t come about until he ended things between them.
Romantic relationships between co-workers, and especially superior and subordinates, can be fraught with peril. Though they can work out, it’s also very possible a spiteful party can cause trouble in the workplace if a relationship ends. While it’s important to hear both sides of a case and try to learn the truth in these circumstances, it’s also important to ensure sexual harassment claims are legitimate and not an instrument of revenge by a scorned party. Davidar dug himself a hole with conflict of interest problems in his job and adultery in his personal life, but it’s important to know the facts before pillorying him for human rights violations as well. (None of the claims or counter claims in this case have been proven in court.)
But is a consensual relationship with a subordinate sexual harassment? Conversely, can exploiting a relationship with a superior to get raises and promotions be considered a type of sexual harassment?
Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.