Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Maybe You Should Leave the Spouse at Home

June 12th, 2008 | Paula Brantner

Unfortunately, we live in a world where harassment and retaliation cases haven’t gone away, and there are still some pretty egregious ones there. But a couple of suits filed recently caught my eye in that they involve the actions of the employer’s spouse. In both cases, powerful people brought their spouses into their workplace to work with them, but their employees allege their boss wasn’t doing enough to curb their spouse’s egregious behavior. These cases highlight the worst side of nepotism, where bosses don’t hold their spouses to the same standards of behavior to which the rest of their employees would be subjected.

Wendy Williams is a national radio personality and host of the show “The Wendy Williams Experience,” also featured on VH-1. Kevin Hunter is Ms. Williams’ husband and manager. Williams’ talent booker and publicist Nicole Spence recently filed a lawsuit against the show, its broadcasting company, Williams, and Hunter, alleging that due to Hunter’s conduct, she felt unsafe at the office.

Ms. Spence alleges that Hunter screamed and cursed at her at work, and called her late at night to tell her about his sexual fantasies and proposition her. When she refused his advances, Ms. Spence claims that Hunter’s conduct became even more threatening. Ms. Spence also feared for her safety because of the way Hunter treated his wife. She claims that Hunter once stormed into an office meeting, “pinning (his wife) against the wall with his hand around her neck, choking her while repeatedly pounding his fist into the wall directly by her head” — all because, she says, Williams failed to quit smoking. (See Associated Press article.) Another explosive allegation contained in the lawsuit is that Hunter attempted to find a hit man to have one of Williams’ on-air rivals killed after she bad-mouthed Williams. (See Black Voices blog.)

Even after the lawsuit was filed, Ms. Spence continues to work at the station. (I bet the environment is a little tense these days, however, and it sounds like she might want to watch her back.) As is typical, Williams has denied the allegations, saying that “Her allegations are totally false. This b*tch is out of her mind….” Hunter added that the allegations were “so far from the truth. It’s insane.” (See New York Post article.)

In Kansas City (my former home), Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who has already weathered several scandals since taking office in May 2007 (see Kansas City Star article), now has his hands full with a new lawsuit filed by a former aide, Ruth Bates, that primarily focuses on the behavior of Funkhouser’s wife, Gloria Squitiro. (See Petition for Damages, Bates v. City of Kansas City.) The legal issues raised by the case are compounded by Squitiro’s status in the mayor’s office as an unpaid full-time volunteer — albeit one that speaks on the mayor’s behalf. (See Kansas City Star article.)

Ms. Bates volunteered with Mayor Funkhouser’s campaign while he was running for office, and says she was asked to attend campaign events with her son and his friends, who were often the only African-Americans at those events. (See Kansas City Star article.) (Funkhouser ran against a popular African-American city council member, Alvin Brooks, who was supported by many local black politicians). After Funkhouser narrowly won election, Ms. Bates observed that the majority of the aides Funkhouser hired were white men. After Ms. Bates complained, she was offered a staff post as Administrator of Boards and Commissions. (See Petition for Damages, Bates v. City of Kansas City.)

However, Ms. Bates claims that she was the lowest paid full-time member of the mayor’s stuff, and was paid considerably less than other aides with less experience and education than she had. (Salary information for city employees, which is public, is available here: Kansas City employees database.) She also claims that Squitiro called her “Mammy,” while calling the only other African-American employee in the office “Bernie Mac” and “Mammy.” Squitiro is alleged to have said, when discussing attendance at a meeting in a Hispanic neighborhood, “I hope they don’t throw hot tamales at us.” Squitiro is also accused of making a number of sexually-charged comments in the office, and when another employee complained, responded that she was the only “fun” employee in the office. (See Petition for Damages, Bates v. City of Kansas City.)

Bates filed an administrative claim with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights last fall, and claims to have suffered additional retaliation after her claim was filed, including being denied the small raise she was promised after complaining about her low salary, and termination on May 19, after she was told she would have to leave the Mayor’s office for a position in another department. (See Kansas City Star article.)

The mayor’s office has not commented on the allegations, except to tell supporters, “We are entering a difficult time again, and as such, we also know that our supporters will be sharing the difficulty with us as well. We apologize for this, and, as always, we are working hard to continue to earn and keep your faith and trust.” (See Kansas City Star article.) Funkhouser has also declined to change Squitiro’s volunteer role with his office.

If the allegations in these cases are true, you have a situation where employees have the ability to wield tremendous power over other employees, not by virtue of their role as a supervisor or manager, but by virtue of their relationship with the head of the office, which in each case is the powerful figurehead and the reason for the office’s existence. There would be no “Wendy Williams Experience” without Wendy Williams, and Mark Funkhouser is the elected official who heads the mayor’s office.

Because the office, in essence, revolves around them, they have the authority to install their spouse as a staff member in the office. It’s safe to say that there was no hiring mechanism when their spouses were brought on board. And, as these employees have learned, there’s no real way to complain when the spouse’s behavior is out of line. These figureheads are unlikely to fire their spouses without it having a significant impact on the relationship, and they aren’t going to fire themselves for making bad personnel decision.

With the high percentage of relationships where both partners work, and the ever-increasing number of couples who meet at the workplace, we are likely to see more situations where a spouse’s behavior adversely impacts the office environment. It’s not something that it’s easy to legislate around. While there are instances where there are legal limits on nepotism in government offices, here, where Squitiro is a volunteer, it may be more difficult to limit her influence. And corporate policies are unlikely to make a difference in situations where the company is structured around the office figurehead who wants to hire her spouse.

But all workers are entitled to a harassment and retaliation-free workplace, and so going to court may be the only way to resolve some of the most egregious situations where a spouse’s behavior is seriously out of line. As these lawsuits progress, we’ll see if having to take such a drastic step is the only real solution for Ms. Bates and Ms. Spence.

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