If you watch NBC’s The Office, it should come as no surprise that the antics at Dunder Mifflin often bump up against the workplace employment laws. This week’s episode provides an example of how workplace romance can lead to a sexual harassment or retaliation claim.
Last season, Manager Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) had a consensual romantic relationship with Receptionist Erin Hannon (Ellie Kemper). But Erin recently broke up with Andy, and he has had trouble accepting the relationship is over. In last week’s episode, Andy crossed the line. He learned that Erin started dating co-worker Pete. Incensed, Andy called Pete into a meeting and fired him for dating Erin. Although HR stepped in and stopped the firing, Andy continued to harass Erin and Pete about their relationship. Andy’s actions violate the anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII and its Ohio equivalent, Revised Code Chapter 4112.
Both Ohio and federal law outlaw so-called “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment happens when a supervisor conditions receiving a job benefit or avoiding a negative job consequence on consenting to the supervisor’s romantic or sexual advances. Even if the supervisor and employee previously had a consensual relationship, the harassment could be illegal.
In The Office, had Andy fired Erin because she broke up with him, there would be an obvious claim of sexual harassment. But the situation here is slightly different because Andy fired new-boyfriend Pete, not Erin. Had HR not stepped in, would Pete have any claim? Quite possibly.
By refusing Andy’s unwanted romantic advances, Erin engaged in “protected activity” under Title VII and Chapter 4112. Employees who engage in protected activity — essentially, opposing a discriminatory workplace practice or participating in an investigation into such a practice — are protected from retaliation. In 2011, the Supreme Court held in Thompson v. North American Stainless, 131 S. Ct. 863 (2011), that this protection also extends to employees who are closely related to or associated with an employee who engages in protected activity. That case involved a fiancé. Whether a boyfriend is protected from retaliation remains to be seen. So Pete might have a claim of associational retaliation.
It’s true that art imitates life. And while this storyline from The Office is fictional, sexual harassment and retaliation in the workplace are not, and they often go hand-in-hand. Victims get harassed. They get fired. In some cases, they are even subject to workplace violence or sexual assault. That’s not a laughing matter. The lesson for employees is to understand their right to be free from workplace sexual harassment and retaliation . . . and to be wary of workplace romances, especially with a supervisor or manager.