Two Richland employees resigned from the city earlier this year after they were caught on video using a municipal vehicle for sex.
The incident exposes gaps in city policies and raises the question of whether new rules could protect taxpayers from the cost of sexual harassment lawsuits, especially in cases where a subordinate is involved.
The Observer confirmed the incident— which took place in a car wash — with records provided through a record request to the city. One employee was a manager in the same department but not the direct supervisor of the other, lower-ranked employee.
Notes in the records indicate that the incident occurred at 12:44 p.m. By 1:42 p.m., Human Resources Director Lacey Paulsen had requested a copy of the carwash video.
Records show the employees submitted notices of resignation, effective immediately, 10 days after officials were notified about the incident.
In recent years, experts have increasingly suggested that companies and government agencies adopt stronger policies to protect taxpayers, public servants and government against the risks of office romance — which can affect office morale, invite complaints about favoritism and result in costly legal settlements.
“Office romance can lead to claims of sexual harassment — both quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment,” wrote labor and employment attorney Joseph U. Leonoro in the National Law Review on April 8.
For instance, some experts recommend that managers be required to disclose any workplace relationships. It’s unclear if that happened in this case.
A record request by the Observer revealed that Richland has no policy toward office romance. It does not even require such relationships be disclosed, as many cities do — including Kennewick and Pasco.
In 2006 the “Me Too” movement began in New York City to empower women who had suffered sexual abuse by letting them know that they were not alone.
Five years ago, it gained new prominence after well-known actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Mira Sorvino joined many other women who levelled accusations against powerful Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein that included unwanted sexual advances, lewd behavior and even rape.
Rules in many workplaces have long discouraged relationships between managers and direct subordinates, in some cases requiring that they be disclosed. Some experts say that doesn’t go far enough – that even relationships between two people of different status, but who don’t directly oversee one another, are a concern.
“…HR [Human Resource] professionals and employment attorneys agree that except in very rare cases (such as between married couples in a family-owned company), relationships between managers and their direct reports should not be permitted,” Susan Milligan wrote in the 2022 summer edition of HR Magazine “And in many cases, relationships between executives and any subordinate should not be allowed, even if they don’t work in the same division.”
San Francisco adopted a nepotism policy in February 2017 that includes romantic relationships. Direct supervision of relatives and romantic relationships are not allowed. Indirect supervision may be allowed — if a management plan is in place to identify potential conflicts of interest.
Both Pasco and Kennewick also address romantic relationships in their nepotism policies which are similar to San Francisco’s.
What if Zucker were a Tri-Cities employee?
There’s no shortage of office romance in the headlines. Earlier this year, for example, CNN president Jeff Zucker resigned when the company learned that he had a relationship with an aide that he didn’t report. “I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong,” he said in a statement.
If Zucker had been a city employee in Pasco he could have been fired. Pasco’s nepotism policy addresses “romantic/dating relationship” and states that concealing it by one or both employees is grounds for dismissal.
When relationships are disclosed in Pasco, the manager and the subordinate have 30 days to decide who remains employed by the city. After that, the city decides for them.
Kennewick’s personnel policy section on “Employment of Relatives” refers to “domestic partners” only. No mention is made of dating relationships.
If employees become related or become domestic partners, Kennewick will consider a transfer. If that can’t be accomplished, the employees decide who will be terminated.
Richland has no policy on office romance
Unlike many cities, Richland has no policy addressing relationships between coworkers.
“We don’t have a policy specifically on office romance or nepotism,” Richland City Manager Jon Amundson said in an email.
“We have a Corrective Action/Discipline Policy and follow best practices regarding nepotism and office romance,” Amundson wrote.
As far as the carwash incident, Amundson said that other city policies could apply. For one thing, city code makes it a crime to commit a lewd act in public. Also, city policies prohibit misuse of city property and require that employees conduct themselves in a responsible and professional manner to avoid “reputational risk” to the city of Richland.