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CEO’s mom prompts lawsuit with overzealous matchmaking

January 29th, 2016  |  Lorene Park

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

I admit it, I have met a few young adults who I found charming enough to have an errant thought that they might make a good spouse for one of my adult children. But I never acted on those notions (much to my kids’ relief I’m sure). And I can’t be the only parent to have had those thoughts and to refrain from acting on them—this case is a good reason not to:

“I’m going to be your mother.” In a lawsuit that presents our “what not to do” example, the plaintiff was the director of talent relations and casting at a Maryland TV station. Among other duties, she booked talent for “TV One-on-One,” a show hosted by the station’s founder, the CEO’s mother. According to the plaintiff, the CEO’s mom subjected her to sex discrimination by repeatedly trying to get her to start a romance with the CEO. On a business trip, the mom said “I’m going to be your mother one way or another. Either you will marry [the CEO] or I will marry your father and be your stepmother.” A while later, after similar encounters, the CEO’s mom sternly asked why the employee was not yet married to the CEO and thereafter said the employee was “old and that her babies would likely be ‘retarded.’”

Personal attacks, rumors. Once the CEO’s mother realized the employee was not going to marry her son, she allegedly began to baselessly attack the employee’s job performance. She publicly berated the employee; started false rumors; and demanded the employee’s termination. Meanwhile, the workplace rumor mill spread tales that the employee was only hired because she was having sex with the CEO, and that she was still romantically involved with him. She complained directly to the CEO, who responded “[A]t least the rumor makes me look good” but otherwise did nothing. The rumors intensified when the CEO’s mom publicly declared on multiple occasions that she wanted the employee and her son to marry.

Employee fired. According to the employee, eventually, her advancement opportunities at the station dried up despite her “stellar work performance and proven success.” By July 2011, the COO warned her that the CEO’s mom was “strategizing” to get her fired. And due to the mom’s “mercurial, volatile, disruptive and abusive behavior,” the employee began to seek therapy to cope with stress and anxiety. She complained repeatedly to supervisors, the legal department, and to HR, to no avail. She was fired in June 2014, after a dispute with the CEO’s mother over the stage to which a musical group should be assigned during a festival.

Sex discrimination. Refusing to dismiss the employee’s sexual harassment claim, the court explained that she did not have to allege “sexual advances or propositions” to show harassment based on gender. It was sufficient that she claimed that the CEO’s mother persistently urged her to marry the CEO; that she was humiliated, publicly chastised, and berated; and that she was subject to workplace rumors. Put simply, “but for her status as a woman,” she would not have been subjected to the alleged harassment. Moreover, the employee plausibly claimed the harassment was “severe and pervasive” because it went on for years and she felt humiliated and degraded to the point that she sought therapy.

Retaliation. The court also refused to dismiss the employee’s retaliation claim, because her complaints to Human Resources and others constituted “protected activity” under federal anti-discrimination law and she suffered an adverse employment action. Indeed, the fact that she was fired only three days after complaining to HR suggested a causal relationship.

So take it to heart, parents and supervisors . . . Whether you call it overzealous matchmaking or “extreme” helicopter parenting, it is a BAD idea to bring those errant I-want-you-for-my-in-law thoughts to the workplace.