Why Your Employer Has a Say in Your Love Life

The #MeToo movement has put a spotlight on workplace relationships and what employers are obligated to do to promote a safe work environment. Smart companies are reviewing their dating policies and reinforcing expected standards. The aim is to prevent harassment and perceived or real discrimination of both men and women.

Companies can ban romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates—even those in different departments, who are not direct reports—because of the implicit power imbalance inherent in the relationship. These can threaten supervision, morale and office efficiency. There is a risk of inequitable treatment (positive or negative) while the relationship is in bloom, and nearly a guarantee of inequitable treatment when it dissolves. The best course of action is a clear fraternization policy which addresses supervisor-subordinate relationships.

Some employers require those in peer-to-peer relationships to disclose those to the company. A recommended policy is to require employees to sign a declaration that the relationship is consensual, and to notify the company of any change in the status of the relationship. This also provides a chance to counsel employees on the behavior expected in the workplace. It is common, for example, to discourage touching or kissing, and limit office interactions to those that would be acceptable between all employees. Even consensual physical interactions in the workplace may make other employees uncomfortable and blur the lines of what’s proper workplace conduct. Keeping sexual undercurrents out of the workplace is just smart business.

This policy approach to peer-to-peer relationships require the couple to notify HR when the relationship ends, so the company can step in to curb any harassment or retaliation that might ensue if things do not go smoothly. This may sound restrictive, but employers can face a range of liability when office relationships sour, as they have a requirement to ensure a safe, secure, nondiscriminatory workplace for all. More companies are adopting clear guidelines, with definitive touchpoints for review. While initially implementation of these may feel awkward, this is a good result of #M3eToo that’s long overdue.