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Workplace affairs can harass those not involved, California court rules.

A supervisor who has sexual affairs with workers can create a hostile work environment for employees not involved in the affairs, according to a California Supreme Court ruling that overturned earlier court decisions.

Edna Miller and Frances Mackey, who worked at a women's prison in California, filed a lawsuit claiming that the warden at the prison granted favorable treatment to several female employees with whom he was having sexual affairs. Miller and Mackey argued that the warden's behavior constituted sexual harassment because it conveyed a message to women that sleeping with management is the path to advancement.

In siding with Miller and Mackey, the California Supreme Court noted that an employee claiming harassment based on a hostile work environment must demonstrate that the offensive conduct underlying the complaint must be so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment. Under this burden of proof, the court said, an isolated instance of favoritism would not constitute sexual harassment.

In reaching its decision, the court relied on policy guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) addressing sexual favoritism that is more than isolated and that is based upon consensual affairs. "In these circumstances," the EEOC advised, "a message is implicitly conveyed that the managers view women as 'sexual playthings,' thereby creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women. Both men and women who find this offensive can establish a violation if the conduct is 'sufficiently severe or pervasive' to alter the conditions of [their] employment and create an abusive working environment."

To download a copy of the court's opinion, visit opinions/.
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Article Details
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Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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