It is clear that if a supervisor whose romantic overtures to a subordinate are spurned attempts to have the object of his/her affections terminated than that makes out a case of sexual discrimination/harassment. But what if the jilted employee is a co-employee, and not a supervisor?
In a recent case of apparent “first impression” from the federal appeals court in Boston (by way of the district court in Puerto Rico), a male employee who engaged in flirtatious interactions with a female co-worker and then rebuffed her advances sued the employer alleging sex discrimination in terminating him and in subjecting him to a hostile workplace. The catch in this is that the co-worker was in the company’s local human resources department, and had the apparent ability — or at least the influence — to actually accomplish her stated goal of getting him fired by the company.
According to the Court, the two “communicated frequently by phone and email,” “sometimes flirted with each other, and when [she] occasionally expressed her romantic interest more explicitly, [he] gently rebuffed her.” When that happened “they exchanged angry emails in which [he] firmly stated that he had no interest in a romantic relationship and asked [her] to respect that decision. [She] responded angrily, making statements that [he] perceived as threatening to have him fired for rejecting her.”
Feeling spurned, she suggested to him that her HR position gave her the ability to push for his termination, and, in fact, the top boss locally issued him a “warning.” She then pushed the top brass in Ohio to fire him and they did so.
The Court stated the issue succinctly: “Under what circumstances, if any, can an employer be held liable for sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it terminates a worker whose job performance has been maligned by a jilted co-worker intent on revenge?
The Court responded to the question just as succinctly: “We answer that the employer faces liability if: the coworker acted, for discriminatory reasons, with the intent to cause the plaintiff’s firing; the co-worker’s actions were in fact the proximate cause of the termination; and the employer allowed the co-worker’s acts to achieve their desired effect though it knew (or reasonably should have known) of the discriminatory motivation.”
The Court held that “a jury could reasonably decide “that [she] conveyed to [him] a threat: engage in a romantic and sexual relationship with me, or I will manage to undercut you at work and get you fired.”
That seems to be the quintessential quid pro quo harassment.