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The Gift that Keeps on Giving

We’re one month away from the saccharin splendor of Valentine’s Day, and in offices across this great country, Cupid’s bow is pulled tight, ready to loose romance on the unsuspecting. The story of the office romance is as old as the workplace itself. Hollywood has carved out a cottage industry on the hapless romantic stumbling into love at the water cooler. However, not all of these moments end like Jerry McGuire. Sometimes Cupid’s arrow misses its mark with disastrous consequences.
In the world of Don Draper and the three-martini lunch, sexual harassment is as easy to spot as the villain in a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. Movies and TV perpetuate this image of the lascivious man propositioning the young ingénue to exchange opportunities for affection. In the mind of the general public, sexual harassment is a quid pro quo offer, a late night meeting over drinks and wandering hands.
However, in the modern workplace, especially the close-knit offices of small businesses, employers need to be conscious of not only their own intentions, but also how others might interpret their actions. For example, management and company leadership should be acutely aware of how a supervisee might interpret a gift around this time of year.
A quick look at the Ellen Pao case that took over Silicon Valley for a significant portion of 2015 highlights this issue. Ms. Pao filed suit against her employer for a myriad of sexual harassment claims. One of the key pieces of evidence in this case was a book given as a gift by a senior partner in the firm. During his testimony at trial, the senior partner told the jury that he gave Ms. Pao Leonard Cohen’s “Book of Longing,” based on their mutual interest in Buddhism. Cohen, one of the great giants of American music, was living in a Buddhist monastery at the time he wrote it.
His motivation sounds remarkably chaste: A supervisor showing an active interest in fostering the spiritual development of one of his supervisees. The problem is that the “Book of Longing” does not stick to Zen Buddhism. The book contains illustrations of naked women and descriptions of sexual experiences, including Cohen’s seduction of “the most beautiful girl/on the religious left.” According to Ms. Pao, this gift was the physical embodiment of the sexist culture to which she had been subjected.
Despite the fact that Pao lost the suit, her employer spent a great deal of money and garnered a significant amount of bad press because of this suit. While probably never a great idea to exchange gifts with erotic caricatures, the partner’s choice of Valentine’s Day only heightened the appearance of impropriety. A couple of simple steps would have alleviated any issues.
1. If you exchange gifts with any employee on Valentine’s Day, try to exchange gifts with all employees.
2. Exchange the same or similar gifts with all employees.
3. Be careful that your gift doesn’t send mixed messages.
Valentine’s Day only comes once a year. While both yourself and your employees should enjoy this day, it’s not worth acting in a manner that requires you to revisit its joy for years to come, as a defendant in a Title VII suit.
Rob Ratton is an attorney at Fisher Phillips. Have questions about a legal or labor and employment matter and how it may affect your business? Contact Fisher Phillips at

Posted: 1/11/2017 11:40:56 AM | with 0 comments
Filed under: BusinessLaw, FisherPhillips, SmallBusiness

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Your business may be small, but that doesn't mean that your impact can't be huge! The Greater Memphis Chamber's Small Business Council serves to encourage, support, recognize and be a resource to small- and medium-sized businesses in the Memphis area. Here, our talented panel of contributors will present big ideas that could make a huge difference to your small business. And don't be afraid to ask questions ... no matter how small.

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Human Resources
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