But a Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel recently ruled that Owens’ employer was in the right to fire her based on her hiding and then lying about an intimate relationship she had with an employee that she helped bring to the firm and then supervised. Owens never disclosed to her employer that the man she helped hire in September 2011, Matt Kobussen, and then directly supervised a month later, were in the middle of a six-year relationship.
“In November 2011, three different employees complained to Chuck Pfrang, the plant manager, that Owens and Kobussen were in a relationship and that there was a conflict of interest because Owens was involved in hiring Kobussen and was now his supervisor,” LexisLegalNewsreports. “Old Wisconsin had no policy prohibiting inter-employee dating, but had an informal policy to question supervisors in relationships with subordinates to avoid conflicts of interest.”
The complaints led to a meeting between Owens, her HR supervisor and Pfrang. In November 2011, Owens denied having a relationship with Kobussen at that meeting and further stated that “I’m not answering this, this is borderline sexual harassment” when asked if she had been involved in a previous relationship with Kobussen.
Steve Harrison, vice president and general manager, would eventually rate Owens a “C” in a performance review, noting she was mediocre and not delivering on the skills she had promised on her resume and interview. When Harrison eventually fired Owens April 2012, the company noted, among other reasons, her false or misleading statements, concerns from employees about their trust in her, that Owens often instigated crisis when she should have exercised calm, and that she did not build a rapport with employees and was seen as unapproachable.
The Seventh Circuit panel did not buy any of Owens’ arguments. Judge Ilana Diamond Rover wrote in the panel ruling: “Owens presented no evidence that Old Wisconsin had failed to question male managers when faced with evidence of similar conflicts. Nor are the questions themselves discriminatory.
In fact, the questions address an issue of legitimate interest to an employer. The potential for a personal relationship between a supervisor and a supervisee, or a hiring manager and an interviewee, is apparent. Employers frequently address such potential conflicts by requiring recusal from hiring decisions or at least acknowledging potential bias in that person’s recommendation, or by transferring employees so as to not fall under the supervision of their partner.
Owens has presented no basis to believe that she was questioned about the relationship because she was a woman.” Owens’ other allegations of gender discrimination--that a manager suggested she lead the firm’s weight watchers program, that she did not dress appropriately and that she spoke out on behalf of a female who did not get a bonus--also failed to sway the court, Jonathan O’Connell, a labor and employment lawyer, writes for Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM).
“Employers should ensure that policies and procedures are applied in a uniform and consistent manner to similarly situated employees,” O’Connell writes. “Such consistency can serve as a critical fact in defending discrimination and retaliation claims.”
The evidence showed that “male managers at Old Wisconsin found to be in relationships with co-workers uniformly were interrogated by management about those relationships and how they might impact the workforce,” Frank Saibert, partner in the labor and employment practice at Nixon, Peabody, writes for the AkronLegalNews.
“That Owens was in a direct supervisory role vis-a-vis Kobussen further differentiated her situation from that of one Old Wisconsin male manager who had been in a romantic relationship with a co-worker,” Saibert notes.