By Karen E. Klein Q: What can I do about a resident Romeo who is also my stepson? His mother and I started a construction business when we married 15 years ago. Her son, who came to work for us two years ago, is a great rep. But he has had affairs with our office manager (a woman 20 years his senior), the wives of at least two customers, a woman who works for a neighboring business, and I don't know how many others. His behavior could ruin us -- imagine if someone's husband comes home and shoots him! When I talked to him about this, he blamed the women, saying they seduce him. Should I take this boy to the vet and have him "fixed" or should I just fire him and risk civil war with his mother, who thinks it's funny that he is sowing his oats? -- D.G., N.Y.
A: Family businesses can test loyalty among family members, but in your situation it's also testing common sense. How hard will Romeo's mother laugh the day your company is slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit, faces retaliation by a jealous husband, or confronts some other catastrophe? Not only could any of those developments devastate your business, but, as you point out, someone could easily get hurt.
"Many employees don't realize that engaging in a sexual relationship with a colleague from work is the type of conduct that can be [covered] by the sexual harassment laws," says Mignon Klein Groch, a Philadelphia-based labor-and-employment attorney and former assistant general counsel at Burlington Coat Factory.
ON THE JOB? "Romeo may think he was having a consensual affair with the office manager, but she may later claim that she felt pressured to go out with him because he is related to management or because he was also a manager," cautions Groch. "She may also claim that she couldn't complain about his behavior...for the same reasons. Another potential problem could arise if she feels that Romeo is still pursuing her and she is no longer interested in him. If bad feelings surround the end of the relationship, she could feel that it has made her work environment hostile, which makes the company vulnerable to a lawsuit for sexual harassment."
Laurie Dea Owyang, a human-resources expert with Los Angeles-based Humanasaurus, adds another perspective: "He may be a great rep, but I seriously question when he actually works, given his extracurricular activities." Since you and your wife know of his inappropriate behavior in the workplace, you are legally obligated to take action to stop it, she points out.
Aside from sexual-harassment claims, your stepson has opened the door for sexual-favoritism allegations and even workplace violence. And not only does your stepson's behavior put your company in jeopardy of being sued, Groch says, but he could also be sued personally for sexual harassment under New York's Human Rights Law.
IT'S OVER, CASANOVA. Legal liability should be a major concern, but morale, productivity, customer relations, and neighbor relations are other, equally serious concerns, says Owyang. Also, Romeo's behavior reflects immaturity and a lack of impulse control that may manifest itself in ways that hurt your business.
"It may be too late to rein in what sounds like out-of-control behavior," says David A. Weiman, a management psychologist based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. He advises that you and your wife meet with a labor or business attorney so she can hear about the seriousness of this situation from a professional. "Next, you need to act like adults and decide together that it's time for Romeo to move on. You'll benefit from learning how to make important business decisions together, and Romeo will get an opportunity for a fresh start somewhere else -- hopefully, where the boundaries will be more strict."
In the future, Weiman suggests, you and your wife should establish a written set of ground rules for employees. "That way," he say, "there can be a meeting of the minds before a new employee starts."
Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.