Ashley Shaw

Inter-Workplace Dating: What Are Your Legal Responsibilities?

Right now, Priceline has an interim CEO. This was not a planned move. They had no plans – that I know of anyway – to get rid of their CEO anytime soon. No. His own conduct caused that.

Darren Huston resigned last Thursday after admitting that he was having an affair with an employee. This employee was not his direct report, but that did not matter. It was against Priceline’s policy for their executives to have romantic relationships with any of their employees. Huston violated that policy, and thus had to leave.

Huston is not the first executive to lose his position because on an unprofessional relationship with a staff member. Just as examples, in the last few years, both Hewlett-Packard and Best Buy have lost CEOs for similar reasons.

This got me thinking:

What exactly is wrong with these men dating a worker – especially when that worker is not a direct report?

Is it just a moral dilemma or are there legal considerations?

Just in case you are wondering the same thing, I compiled some thoughts on the matter.

Ethics vs. Legal Responsibilities

The ethical reasons behind not allowing executives to date employees is pretty obvious. This is true even when neither party is married.

After all, innocent or not, it is hard to remain unbiased against someone you are romantically linked to. If that person comes up for a promotion or has a spat with another worker, it would be easy to – even subconsciously – side with that person.

On the other hand, it might be just as easy to go the other way and try to be so unbiased for the person that you actually end up doing the exact opposite and act biased against them.

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But does that line actually cross boundaries of ethics and lead to a legal dilemma?

As is most legal issues, the answer is most likely maybe.

If the relationship was documented, open, and no decisions about the employee were made by the executive he or she has the relationship with, then there is a chance that the only lines that are being crossed are those of some questionable morals.

However, the problem occurs when the relationship does gain certain perks for the employee. This is especially true if the employee later tries to say that the relationship was forced or only offered for those perks.

There can also be some problems in situations where a policy exists saying inter-office relationships are not allowed, but it is only enforced for some people.

Legal Considerations

Assuming that there is no coercion in the relationship and no favoritism is given because of the relationship, it might just be that there is no legal reason a supervisor or executive shouldn’t be able to date an employee – regardless of whether the employee is a direct report or not.

The problem, however, really comes in the he-said she-said world that we live in. If you allow workplace relationships between supervisors and lower-level employees, there is a world of legal trouble that you could get into if it came down to disputes between the nature of the relationship.

Coercion

It is hard to prove definitively if a relationship was mutually wanted once one party says that it wasn’t. This is especially true if the relationship was conducted in secret.

Sometimes, a truly mutually sought out relationship, once ended, can bring one employee forward with a false story. However, sometimes, it might be an innocent misunderstanding, such as if the supervisor thinks the relationship is voluntary but the employee feels as if he or she has no choice. Perhaps it just genuinely was a situation where the supervisor pressured a worker into a relationship.

No matter how it comes up, you probably do not want to be in a situation where you have to deal with this issue at all.

When it is such a murky area anyway, why risk losing the case in court when an unhappy worker makes a claim?

Favoritism

Another issue that might arise from a supervisor-employee relationship comes from all of your other employees who might feel like – no matter how careful the supervisor is to not show favoritism – they are being looked over for promotions, roles, etc. because of this relationship.

Valid claims or not, this does more than effect the workplace morale.  Imagine the suits a disgruntled employee might try when they feel as if another employee has a personal relationship with the boss that leads to preferential treatment.

Right off the top of my head, I think of discrimination suits – especially if the supervisor has had multiple work relationships assumedly all with the same gender.

What all of this leads to is that when it comes to supervisor-supervisee relationships, you need to be really careful. It can be hard to get around the legal issues, it is ethically very questionable, and it can truly harm your workplace’s morale and ability to retain employees.

To avoid all of these issues, it is a good idea to create a policy that bans supervisors from dating any employee – even one that is not a direct report.

At the very least, it is wise to take steps to ensure any relationship is brought forward to the company, given visibility to the rest of the workers, and conducted in an-above board manner.

  • Make sure that both parties are fully consensual in the relationship. Consider creating a love contract that both people sign.
  • Take steps to ensure that the supervisor is not making any major decisions affecting the employee he or she is dating.
  • Listen to the considerations of the other employees to see signs of dissatisfaction about the situation.

Even if you do not have a policy that bans supervisors or executives from dating employees, make sure whatever your policy is has been put down in words, in whatever format you keep your other policies, and that it has been clearly communicated to all of your employees.

Legal Considerations When a Policy Is in Place

If you already have a policy in place banning supervisor/supervisee relationships, does that change your legal obligations?

Maybe.

Once a policy is in place, you need to be extra vigilant about enforcing it in a consistent manner. Disparate treatment can easily lead to a lawsuit.

To see what I mean, think about this illustration:

The CEO of your company has an affair with one of the employees at your company. You find out about it. Your workplace has a very clear policy banning this type of relationship with a zero tolerance policy. This CEO is great, though, and you do not want to lose him. So you take him to the side and let him know that the relationship needs to end or you might be forced to enforce the policy. He ends the relationship. You all move on.

A few years later, the CFO starts a relationship with the employee. While the CFO is a fine employee, you have been thinking of getting someone better for a while now. Using the policy as the reasoning, the CFO is then forced to retire.

Do you see any potential problems?

Let’s say the CEO is a white, American man. Now, let’s say the CFO is a Middle Eastern woman.

When a policy is not consistently enforced across the board, the company opens itself up to disparate treatment discrimination suits.

So if you have a policy, make sure you are actually enforcing it and that you are enforcing it the same with everybody.

The Rights of the Rest of the Workers

A lot of what I have talked about so far has dealt with supervisor/supervisee relationships. But what about an employee/employee relationship or an employee/client relationship?

Should you ban those relationships? Are you even legally allowed to do so?

Let us look at the first question first. There are two sides of the coin here.

On the side of banning workers from dating, you have the following arguments:

  • You want to keep your workplace professional and dating workers can take from that environment.
  • If the couple breaks up, they can find themselves in a hostile workplace of their own making.
  • If the couple breaks up, one or both might choose to leave, which could make you lose a valuable employee.
  • It might make other employees uncomfortable.

On the side of allowing workers to date, you can say the following:

  • Because employees spend so much time at work, allowing them to socialize increases their morale.
  • Because they spend so much time with workers, it would be hard to stop all relationships across the board.
  • If they want to date badly enough and aren’t allowed to, one or the other might leave. Once again meaning you could lose a valuable employee.

In the end, what it comes down to is personal choice. While you should make a clear policy and enforce it, what you decide to put in that policy should be based on how you want to operate.

However, one last interesting facet of all this is whether you can even ban these relationships at all. After all, in some states, there are laws saying you cannot ban lawful conduct outside of the workplace. Dating is a lawful conduct.

So if you are in one of those states or localities, are you even allowed to ban inter-office romances?

Probably. Most anti-fraternization policies have been upheld. However, if you are in a state where a legal off-conduct law exists, then you might have to be able to justify your use of the policy.

Some Final Thoughts

Depending on the size and environment of your office, you may not want to ban all inter-office relationships. However, whether you choose to or not for most workers, it probably is a good idea to have such a policy for executives and any supervisor/supervisee relationships.

No matter what you end up making the policy, though, take steps to ensure that it is being enforced equally. Having it effect some relationships and not others can lead to discrimination issues and bad morale.

Finally, if you do allow employees to date, make sure that any major decisions – such as promotions, salary inquiries, etc. – are handled by a neutral third party or at the very least with a neutral third party overseeing it.

If you are unsure of how to handle your inter-workplace dating policy, then ask the legal experts for help.

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