An interesting twist on the bunny boiling theme...
If you Google the words “affair with an intern” you will come up with more than 692,000 hits in a nanosecond, including the recent inclusions of David Letterman and Tennessee State Senator Paul Stanley (who may be rethinking his pro-abstinence platform right about now). So when news broke that ESPN anchor Steve Phillips had sex with a production assistant (and who had previously admitted to numerous extramarital affairs and had already faced one claim of sexual harassment in the 1990s), there was some thought that perhaps this should not come as news to anyone–particularly not to the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Phillips.
The fact that a 22-year-old aggrandized the affair with a married father of four into a life long love affair worthy of a letter to the wife explaining why “we” don’t want to hide this anymore, makes the whole thing more salacious (and pathetic, given that the 22 year old’s 15 minutes of fame have mostly been spent on media discussions of how chubby and unattractive she is.)
While the 22-year-old’s fake facebook friending of Phillip’s teenager is a twist which Glenn Close could only dream of back in the day when, if you wanted to go full on crazy, you had to boil the rabbit yourself, the real lesson here ISN’T that you should stop sleeping with P.A.’s and interns (since, as the pro-abstinence former Senator from Tennessee would tell you, that’s not so easy to follow.) The real lesson is one that is simpler: if you are going to screw bat-shit crazy 22-year-olds, DON’T DO IT WITH THOSE IN YOUR OFFICE since that elevates the whole mess from “big problem in my marriage” to “the biggest mistake I ever made.”
Perhaps after Steve Phillip’s last run-in with the sexual harassment officer didn’t end in death or dismemberment, he forgot how horrible an allegation like that can be to a career. But if you’re the average Joe Workerbee, the first office affair that ends badly will likely be the last in the dead-end now known as your former career.
Here’s the thing that most people forget when they sling around the words “sexual harassment”: sex with a coworker is NOT illegal—not even if a subordinate sleeps with a supervisor. It may be against company policy (more on that later), but it’s not illegal.
There are two types of sexual harassment: hostile work environment sexual harassment where the workplace is so permeated with sexual jokes, gestures, innuendos, etc. that it becomes a hostile and abusive work environment (even if there is no propositioning of any one individual) and quid pro quo sexual harassment where a supervisor premises job action on whether or not the target of his or her affection engages in a romantic relationship.
There are, in fact, many defenses to a claim of illegal quid pro quo sexual harassment, the most important being that it’s not harassment if it’s not unwelcome. (This poor deluded 22-year-old was so off her rocker it’s not a stretch to say that she actually WANTED to have sex with him.) Without the element that the romantic interest is unwelcome, it is virtually impossible to prove this claim. And a crazy-ass letter to a wife explaining why the intern should get to take her deserved place as the next Mrs. Phillips will likely end the discussion of whether or not she actually wanted “it.”
But here’s where your job ends if your affair ends badly: once an affair (not a sexually harassing affair, just your garden variety sex with a 22-year-old production assistant kind of affair) ends—and let’s face it, when she packs on 20 pounds and turns into the shrew who reminds you of your first wife, it will end—if you are the supervisor who gives her performance evaluations, your choice is either to give her the highest rankings of any underling who’s ever seen the inside of your offices, or else you risk the one claim she hasn’t forgone by sending you texts telling you she wants to get into your pants: RETALIATION.
That is, not only is it illegal to premise job action like a promotion or a demotion on acquiescence to sexual relations, it is also illegal to premise job action AFTER THE FACT on that basis. And retaliation is a claim that can be caused by either the actions of the supervisor-turned-former-lover OR by the company who looks into the matter and determines that they have a hound dog on one side and a bucket of crazy on the other and that they should fire both. Yes, Virginia, this is why most companies have a policy prohibiting romantic relationships.
Right now, Steve Phillips is sitting home wondering how he lost his marriage and his job over what amounted to probably no more than 30 minutes of pleasure in total, and this 22-year-old is STILL RIGHT THIS MINUTE at the same job she’s held all along in the offices of ESPN. Why? Because if she loses her job over this, there will be retaliation claims to follow.
While one has to wonder how many people are sitting at her lunch table at ESPN headquarters pretending they don’t want to find out more about Phillip’s birthmarks or pretending they don’t fear that the P.A. will be writing letters to THEIR wives spilling all of their own dastardly deeds, she does still get to come to work, a privilege that Steve Phillips lost when the whole thing imploded.