If those relationships end badly, feelings get hurt and the subordinate starts looking for retribution by way of a sexual harassment lawsuit. Or the supervisor begins to find a way to get that employee out of the company, setting your firm up for an unlawful termination lawsuit.
"In these cases, people tend to revise history," says Mark Valponi, a partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Cleveland. "They start to say, 'I was only involved with him or her because I thought I would get fired if I didn't.' But if somebody with authority to confer or withhold a job benefit would do something like that, the company is liable."
In legal terms, that type of sexual harassment is called quid pro quo. The other kind, hostile environment, involves inappropriate sexually oriented comments and/or actions against a co-worker.
Attorneys usually advise against fighting a suit in which a subordinate sues a supervisor in a quid pro quo case. Juries rarely find for the supervisor, and the damage to a company's reputation can't be measured in dollar terms.
"More companies are flat out prohibiting these type of relationships in their sexual harassment policies," Valponi says. "The risks are just too high."
Aside from forbidding supervisor/subordinate relationships, Valponi outlined other guidelines to safeguard your company against sexual harassment lawsuits.
Put it in writing
If you haven't done so already, adopt a zero tolerance policy that forbids sexual harassment in the workplace and clearly defines what kind of behavior is sexual harassment.
Avoid the legalese. Make sure the policy contains a complaint procedure for employees if they think they or one of their coworkers are the victim of sexual harassment. Often the victim doesn't feel comfortable filing a complaint; when one is filed, there should be more than one person that can field it.
"If your policy says, 'Take all complaints to your supervisor,' but your supervisor is the one that's harassing you, then what's the point in taking it there?" Valponi says.
If you run a larger company, pick two or three people who can field complaints. For example, the person in charge of HR or another supervisor outside the department could field complaints, in addition to the employee's main supervisor.
Make sure your other policies match the sexual harassment policy. In this computer age, e-mail and the Internet are often used for sexual harassment.
Make it clear that company computers belong to the company and that they're to be used for company business only. Because it's company property, it's subject to monitoring or searching without employee notice. The same goes for telephones and voice mail.
If you're implementing a policy midstream, have employees sign an acknowledgement that they read it and indicate the date they read it. Follow up by training supervisors and employees on the issues: How to file a complaint, what to do when a complaint is filed and how to respond.
"If you do a cost-benefit analysis, what is the benefit of letting employees post nude calendars or other materials in the workplace?" Valponi says. "The cost of doing that is finding yourself embroiled in a sexual harassment lawsuit. It's not worth it."
How to reach: Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, (216) 241-2838