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Employing Realistic, Equitable Policy for Managing Working Relationships

March 01, 1998|STUART SILVERSTEIN

For argument's sake, let's give President Clinton the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

All the same, office affairs and true workplace romances are certain to keep blooming. That's largely due to the dramatic rise in the number of women in the work force in recent decades and an increased emphasis by employers on, ahem, close teamwork.

Meanwhile, some of the inevitable romantic breakups will lead to messy personal disputes and legal battles, such as sexual harassment suits, that disrupt workplaces and undermine morale and productivity. What's an employer to do? For starters, "be realistic" and recognize that romances will happen no matter what you do, says Michael D. Karpeles, a Chicago management attorney who specializes in employment law.

Karpeles, and many other lawyers and management advisors, urge employers to adopt written policies and to discuss them in small group meetings with workers. "Employees need to understand that an employer is not doing this to restrict their relationships or intrude in their privacy," Karpeles said. "The employer has some legitimate prerogatives to ensure that when people are at work, they're working and working productively."

Some other tips for managers drafting these policies:

* To head off claims of discrimination or favoritism, adopt uniform rules that treat top executives and entry-level employees alike.

* Likewise, don't make a distinction between married and unmarried employees. "If you're going to have a policy that prohibits adultery," Karpeles said, "then what you're really saying is that people who are married cannot have relationships, but people who are unmarried can. It's not going to take too creative of a plaintiff's lawyer to claim that that's marital-status discrimination."

* Whenever possible, prohibit employees who are romantically involved from working together as supervisor and subordinate. If there's no fair way to transfer one of the employees, make sure that other supervisors handle or help in performance reviews of the subordinate involved in the romance. And make it clear that the subordinate can go to higher-level managers to discuss any workplace issue.

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Attendant Fees: Arguing that it is illegal under state labor law for employers to charge job-application fees, California authorities have stepped up their investigation into airlines that engage in the practice.

State officials say they are looking into expanding their civil lawsuit filed in January against Northwest Airlines, accusing the carrier of illegally chapiece to process their applications. They say they have recentlsimilar fees, in the range of $25 to $100, charged by American, Airlines.

The suit has been branded as politically motivated by aides to Al Checchi, a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful who until last April was co-chairman of Northwest. Checchi aides and Northwest officials maintained that charging application fees is a standard airline-industry practice intended to cover the high costs of conducting security-related background checks on job candidates and related expenses.

"Our reading of the law is that you are allowed to defray processing costs," said Jon Austin, a Northwest spokesman.

Dallas-based Southwest has raised similar arguments in favor of the application fees, noting that it imposes charges in the $25-to-$35 range in California and across the country. Southwest spokeswoman Kirsten Kendrick said part of the reason is to discourage people who aren't serious candidates from applying.

Officials in the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who is barred from running for reelection this year because of term limits, have denied that politics was a factor in the suit. They said the case against Northwest was triggered by a complaint from a job applicant, and now that additional complaints have been received against other airlines, the probe has been expanded.

California authorities are pursuing the case under a section of state law that prohibits an employer from coercing an employee or a job candidate to purchase "anything of value."

"Where do you draw the line on an application fee if you don't draw it here?" said John C. Duncan, director of the California Department of Industrial Relations. "Most employers realize it's illegal to force someone to pay to apply for a job, so most companies don't do it."

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Wage Hike: California's minimum wage rises today to $5.75 an hour, up 60 cents from the federally mandated level. No more increases in either the state or federal minimum wage are scheduled, but the Clinton administration has proposed boosting the federal standard during the next two years to $6.15. By one estimate, 5% of the 15 million working Californians will receive immediate raises because of today's increase in the minimum wage.

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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