Like it or not, sex and drugs and rock and roll are part of the workplace. The next three editions of the HR Law Insider examine how business owners and human resource managers deal with these combustible issues.
This HR Law Insider edition deals with “anti-fraternization” policies employers use to try and discourage employees from embarking on sexual or romantic relationships with each other. The next edition discusses what employers should do when they suspect employees are using drugs or alcohol. The third edition in the trilogy addresses emerging cultural trends that often confound and frustrate employers.
THE NUMBERS DO NOT LIE: WORKPLACE RELATIONSHIPS ARE COMMONPLACE
According to a recent survey of 8,000 workers by the job-search website CareerBuilder.com, four out of 10 employees have dated someone at work; 17 percent have done it twice.
The majority of relationships occurred between peers. 29 percent of workers who have dated someone at work dated someone above them in the company hierarchy; 16 percent admitted to dating a boss. Women were more likely to date someone higher up in their organization — 38 percent compared to 21 percent of men.
ADDRESSING EMPLOYER CONCERNS THRU ANTI-FRATERNIZATION POLICIES
There are many wonderful things that can occur as a result of office relationships. The seeds for many a marriage have been planted with a chance encounter at the water cooler or at a company sponsored happy hour or charity event.
On the other hand, office relationships can set the stage for a number of problems: gossip; lack of professionalism; allegations of favoritism or nepotism; claims of sexual harassment or discrimination; and lost productivity.
If your company is concerned about these or other problems associated with workplace relationships, it may lawfully prohibit such relationships. Typically, this should done thru a policy in an employee handbook (although it may be done verbally or thru other means).
SELECT THE POLICY THAT BEST FITS THE SITUATION
There are many different types of policies that cover workplace relationships. For example: some policies contain outright prohibitions on all relationships among all employees; other policies ban only relationships between superiors (manager, supervisor) and subordinates who work directly for them; still other policies allow such relationships if the relationship is disclosed and the employees mutually agree that one of the two employees will move within the company so that they no longer have a working relationship; and, other policies allow the relationship to continue as long as it is disclosed and the parties sign an acknowledgment that they will not engage in any conduct that amounts to discrimination or that would affect the company.
The foregoing policies are but examples. There are many permutations on these policies. To date, courts have been very accepting of workplace relationship policies, which have withstood judicial scrutiny time and again.
MAKING THE DECISION WHETHER TO IMPLEMENT AN ANTI-FRATERNIZATION POLICY OR SCRAP AN EXISTING ONE
I encourage all business owners to review their policies once a year to decide: what is working, what is not working, and what is needed to comply with any recently enacted laws. Reviewing one’s anti-fraternization policy (or lack thereof) is simply part of this prudent business practice — of managing one’s company and employees to achieve the best possible result.
Many businesses believe that anti-fraternization policies are a solid means of avoiding many headaches and potential claims. Indeed, I have defended several companies which were sued when supervisor/subordinate relationships went south — lawsuits that theoretically would not have occurred had there been anti-fraternization policies in place.
Other businesses, however, believe that workplace relationship policies are unnecessary, ineffective, or bad for morale; they believe that good management, rather than anti-fraternization policies, is the best way to inoculate against the potential ills associated with workplace relationships.
Regardless of the choice your company makes, understand this: workplace relationships are happening, will continue to happen, and will continue to cause trouble for employers who ignore the pitfalls and mayhem that often result when relationships crumble.
If a workplace relationship occurs in violation of a company policy, your business typically has every right to terminate the employment relationship; this is particularly so when the relationship has put the company at risk. Employers, however, generally should not terminate subordinate employees — particularly when they are female — lest the termination itself give rise to a claim. As with many workplace issues, every case is unique and counsel should be consulted before action is taken.