“Ask Sheila” Column

Dear Sheila,

We have some juicy rumors swirling around the office these days. According to the rumor mill, one of our employees, who was recently promoted, received her promotion because she is having a sexual relationship with her manager! Her coworkers are gossiping about it and some are upset that she may have received a promotion based on something other than merit. Apparently the rumors have gotten back to her and some of her coworkers are not being subtle about what they think.

What is the best way to handle this situation? Should we take a second look at the promotion decision and her qualifications? We don’t want someone to get ahead on anything other than merit!

Too Much Drama

Dear Too Much Drama,

It sounds like you have some investigating to do, but don’t first focus on this woman’s qualifications. Begin by investigating the source of the rumor and whether there is any truth to the existence of a relationship, which is likely against your employee policies. Do not assume that the rumor is true.

If there is a relationship, you should address it in accordance with your policies, which should prohibit relationships between employees in reporting relationships, and usually place more responsibility on the senior employee to refrain from the conduct. You may at that point also want to review the merits of the promotion decision. The promoted employee might also allege a “quid pro quo” offer by the manager, which, if true, would create legal liability for the employer.

If there is no relationship, you should take action to quash the gossip. A recent federal appellate case held that an employer can be liable for sex-based coworker harassment and hostile work environment based on false rumors circulated that the plaintiff had obtained a promotion as a result of a sexual relationship. Other courts have held the same way in the past. You should take steps to shut the rumor mill down and make sure the employee’s coworkers are not treating her differently because of the (false) rumors.

Don’t forget that an employer can be liable for illegal harassment if it does not take appropriate and timely steps to remedy it, even if it is not perpetuated by a supervisor. For this reason, avoiding snap judgments and taking immediate action to thoroughly investigate and resolve complaints is an important way to mitigate risk. If you track down the source of the false rumors, disciplinary action may be appropriate.

“Ask Sheila” is prepared by Sheila Gladstone, Chair of the Firm’s Employment Practice Group. If you would like additional information or have questions related to this article or other matters, please contact Sheila at 512.322.5863 or sgladstone@lglawfirm.com .

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