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HR Manager in a Relationship With Employee Could Not Show Bias

Old Wisconsin Sausage Co. received complaints from several employees that its HR Manager Jamie Owens was in a relationship with one of its employees and that it was a conflict of interest. When approached about the relationship, Ms. Owens denied that they were a couple. She refused to answer any questions and claimed that, “this is borderline sexual harassment.” Ms. Owens did not disclose her six-year relationship with the employee or that she was living with him when she had interviewed him, and participated in hiring him for the Sausage Co.

The Sausage Co. did not have a written policy of prohibiting personal relationships. It did have a history of oral inquiry upon learning of such relationships to prevent conflicts of interest. Within a couple of months, Ms. Owen was fired. According to the company, she was fired because she was not a proper fit for her position and there were problems both with her professionalism and performance. A memo produced by the company indicated that her false or misleading statements related to hiring decisions and a concern with her integrity were part of the decision.

Before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Ms. Owens claimed that she was fired because she refused to answer questions about her relationship and that her “borderline harassment” comment was a complaint. She argued that male supervisors were not similarly terminated for their failure to answer questions about relationships with employees. The appellate court found that the male comparators had either disclosed the relationship to management or not supervised the person they were dating. The evidence showed that the company interviewed both male and female supervisors when it believed there were relationships thus there was no evidence of bias. Furthermore, she lacked sufficient evidence to show she had been complaining of sexual harassment.