You can date your boss, but your boss can’t date you. Workplace romances are older than time. While it worked out for Marie and Pierre Curie and the Obamas, they are the exceptions.
The obvious problems include distracting flirtations, accusations of favoritism, gossiping and slowdowns in everyone’s productivity. What about employees and managers just becoming friends getting together after work and confiding in each other? Are all of these friendships legal problems? Thanks to Title VII, they can be.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission instructs that “Unwelcome sexual advances … constitute(s) sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
While blatant sexual harassment is easily identifiable, relationships are more challenging. How do you prove “advances” are welcomed? Once you have knowledge of an office romance, it should be promptly addressed.
A classic example. The supervisor dates a person who reports to them. It’s true love – they know it’s forever. Wedding bells are ringing. However, there is one magic rule – once they start dating, they MAY NEVER EVER again be in a reporting chain. And even trickier is the fact that best practices dictate that the boss, not the subordinate, should be transferred to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
Here’s where prescient policies can save the day. Have a policy that encourages all employees involved in a romantic relationship, especially one that involves a superior, to meet with HR and map out their immediate work future. Draft a Memorandum of Understanding of what the new normal will be.
In this so-called “Love Contract,” both parties agree their relationship is consensual and that should things change, they will let the company know. Any new assignments should be included along with a recitation of your anti-harassment policy. While this is not a bulletproof shield against lawsuits, it’s a start.
What about a breakup? Continue to keep the boss and subordinate apart. Routinely check on any employees whose workplace love has gone bad; don’t be surprised that yesterday they liked being called “honey bear,” and today they say it’s harassment.
A final note, companies need to train managers on the pitfalls of extracurricular fraternization. This is a similar danger zone.
An employee asks a manager if they can “talk” after work. The employee tells the manager their spouse is seriously ill, causing the employee to drink all the time. Don’t be surprised when the next time the employee is disciplined, they claim it’s because of their spouse’s health problems or their drinking. All managers would be well-advised to keep non-work-related conversations confined to safe topics like the weather and local high school sports.
And hence, if our mythical manager had followed these rules, they might not have met their true love, but the company might not be getting sued.
* This article first appeared in The Journal Record on February 18, 2022, and is reproduced with permission from the publisher.