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Lawsuit highlights hazards of relationships in the workplace

A few minutes of indiscretion is not worth possibly years of heartache

Editor's note: A Roanoke firefighter who engaged in sexual shenanigans while on the job has failed to prove he was the victim of sexual discrimination, it emerged this week. Editorial Advisor Art Hsieh takes a look at the lessons to be learned below.

While it is more rare for a gender discrimination lawsuit to be filed by a male, it does happen, as illustrated by this recent case in Virginia.

In this incident, a male officer was accused by a female line medic of improper behavior within the station. The department fired the officer while verbally reprimanding the medic.

The officer was able to reclaim a lower position within the department, and continued to litigate for damages, stating that he had been more harshly treated because he was a male.

Sex-based discrimination, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, involves treating someone unfairly because of that person's sex. It would seem that the officer had to demonstrate in principle that while both he and the female medic were of equal footing in terms of position and circumstances, he was treated differently and more harshly.

At least to the federal judge presiding over this case, the officer was unable to demonstrate that situation.

Reading the press accounts gave me a few questions to ponder. First, does the department have a policy in place that provides direction on what type of investigation and what level of discipline is appropriate given the allegation?

Was there evidence that the accusing medic could provide that would help demonstrate that this was not just a "he said, she said" situation? It would seem a bit shallow that the officer was terminated from his job if there was no proof of the allegation.

Second, what was the department stance on personal relationships between officers and line personnel? I think that under most circumstances, departments would have little to say what happens off duty among staff.

Yet, when things don't turn out well it certainly can spill over into the workplace, which is what appeared to happen here. A lesson to be learned, I think.

As to how this relates to you and me: know your department policies well. If you don't, find out. If they don't exist, or are too vague to be of help, use common sense and good judgment. A few minutes of indiscretion is not worth possibly years of heartache.

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