Fraternization in the Workplace - Some Answers
Valentine’s Day, that time of year when you show that special someone in your life how much they truly mean to you. For some, that special someone might be a co-worker. With the majority of our waking hours spent at work, it’s no wonder some work-related friendships blossom into romance. It’s common to find like-minded people at work or someone that you bond with over a project. Many businesses operate in a collaborative fashion thrusting people together to achieve a common goal. That camaraderie builds strong bonds and the next thing you know, feelings develop. However, with the #Metoo Movement many employers have become hypersensitive to workplace romances as it can open a can of worms that creates headaches and liability for an employer. It’s ironic to think that the catalyst for a workplace romance is then squashed by the very same institution.
Policies are put in place to protect a company from risks, including policies regarding workplace relationships. Controlling relationships at work is challenging, as many relationships go unreported despite a company’s best efforts. So why is it important for an employer to have a policy regarding relationships? An employer can become entangled in a lawsuit as a result of bad blood between exes or employees that feel couples are obtaining some sort of added benefits that they are not. To protect themselves, an employer can either take a zero-tolerance approach and write a policy forbidding work relationships, however, that’s not very realistic. On the other hand, an employer can acknowledge the fact that workplace relationships happen, and as such provide guidelines within a policy that must be followed such as; immediate disclosure of the relationship, signed acknowledgments indicating that the relationship is consensual, and ensuring that neither party is in the direct chain of command of one another. Neither approach will completely absolve an employer from liability, but it sets boundaries and provides an employer with a leg to stand on if litigation arises.
Some may think: “It’s my life, why is it my employer’s business whom I date?” Well, I would agree to disagree. When one is in a consensual relationship outside of work, it’s only between them and their significant other. When one is in a consensual relationship with a co-worker, they have a third and fourth wheel, their employer and every other co-worker. Dating a co-worker adds a layer due to the dynamics in the workplace. It is not uncommon for other co-workers to “claim” that a couple at work are providing each other special benefits, are unproductive, or find their displays of affection offensive, even if it’s unfounded. Let’s say for instance an employee in a relationship orders office supplies for the company. A co-worker could perceive, true or not, that their new significant other is getting “better supplies”, thus creating inequality. While this example may seem absurd, it actually happened. This creates a headache for the employer who has to investigate the validity of the claim. If you think it stops there, it doesn’t. The green-eyed-monster of suspicion often creeps up in other co-workers because they sense there must be some sort of inequality. It can get really bad if one of the employees in a relationship handles something vital, like internal payroll or approval of expense reports. Additionally, simple human gestures such as a hug, holding hands, looking at each other while sharing lunch together, suddenly becomes offensive to others. Each time a co-worker makes a claim that pertains to special treatment, unproductive banter, gestures of affection, et cetera, the employer must step in and investigate it. These normal office occurrences are somehow amplified when it is between two employees that are dating. Face it, haters are going to hate and if you’re an employer you’re likely going to get dragged into the middle of it at some point. Don’t get me wrong, relationships between co-workers in a respectful work environment can work, however, relationships between a supervisor and subordinate should never occur. This is a whole other level with potential serious risks for an employer, don’t even entertain the thought as an employee nor allow it as an employer.
You most likely spend more time with your co-workers than you do with your own family, so dating a co-worker is not far-fetched. Employers need to make a decision on how they want to handle it, then create a policy to address it. Employees need to review their employee handbook and follow their employer’s policy. When the relationship is discovered (and it will be), failure to follow the policy could lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination. Employees who engage in a relationship at work need to understand the dynamics and how that may play out, especially if the relationship doesn’t work out. Remember, everything is okay… until it isn’t.