A cautionary tale about workplace relationships comes out of Pittsburgh this week

The sordid story involves the – now former – CEO of Highmark, 58-year-old Dr. Ken Melani. A well-respected figure in the community, Dr. Melani was riding high – CEO of a major, national company, and a $4.3 million dollar salary to boot. But, all of that came crashing down last week when police arrested him for a physical altercation with . . . his 28-year old mistress’s husband at the mistress’s house. And to further complicate matters the mistress, Melissa Myler, is also a Highmark employee. The police report (see part 1 here and part 2 here) suggests that the affair did not begin until after the two started working together.

Needless to say, Highmark was not pleased about the negative attention directed towards it when its CEO became embroiled in an embarrassing scandal. Highmark fired Dr. Melani Sunday night.

Now, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the criminal charges will probably be dismissed, but the labor and employment law angles loom large. Dr.Melani is alleging that he disclosed to the Highmark Board about his relationship with his younger colleague and that unnamed Board members wanted to get rid of her as a result. His attorney seems to be framing this as a possible gender discrimination case – or a retailiatory discharge claim that Dr. Melani was fired because he refused to take part in illegal discriminatory activity.  In a press release late yesterday,the Company claimed that it fired Melani for “gross misconduct.”

To be sure, Highmark has a HR disaster on its hands. But what if your company was faced with the CEO disclosing that he/she was having an extra-marital affair with somebody who is, at least, nominally a subordinate (not to mention 30 years younger)? Could Highmark have acted differently and avoided the associated fallout now?

One possible way that companies can avoid these sorts of problems is to institute a policy prohibiting relationships between employees, or at the very least, between subordinates and superiors. Nothing in the law prevents you from doing so and it might have solved Highmark’s problem here. Employers are often hesitant to police morality among their employees.  But, given the Melani drama, Highmark might now think that such a policy would have been especially wise.

Sitting on the news and then possibly asking or insinuating that the CEO should fire his mistress is a recipe for a lawsuit, as Highmark is discovering.