Do employers need to address workplace romances?

| Jan 4, 2021 | employment law

When employees spend roughly forty hours a week together, it is common to establish important connections and meaningful friendships. In some cases, those friendships might develop into a relationship.

Most employers might not think this is a matter of significance. However, that is not necessarily true. Affairs of the heart in the workplace could quickly turn sour and have considerable effects on business affairs that could lead to serious disputes.

Relationships at work can cause major issues for businesses

An employee’s relationship is an aspect of their private life, right? Many employers believe it is not their concern, but workplace relationships are another matter entirely. In some cases, the effects of a workplace relationship could lead businesses to face considerable consequences

Take the events in the ongoing lawsuit between McDonald’s and its former CEO, for example. The former CEO had relationships with several subordinate employees. He is now facing charges of misconduct and a lawsuit from the restaurant chain. This is an extreme case, but it still illustrates the risk these relationships can pose.

Relationships between supervisors and subordinate employees create the most risk for employers, as they can often lead to:

  • Hostile work environments: In 2005, the California Supreme Court determined that favoritism resulting from a workplace relationship could create a hostile work environment for other employees. The Court also ruled that employers could be held liable in these cases.
  • Harassment: The risk of workplace relationships can increase exponentially if the relationship ends. If workers retaliate, or one continues to pursue the other, it could lead to sexual harassment complaints or claims of misconduct. These complaints could directly impact the employer and lead them to face serious legal issues.

These issues might not exist in a relationship between two employees at the same level, but any personal relationship could lead to a conflict of interest and significant risk for businesses.

How should employers address this matter?

Many employers might not even be aware of a workplace relationship. However, it is still a matter that employers must address.

Although employers cannot exactly enforce a company policy that forbids dating or relationships, they can discuss an employee dating policy in the employee handbook. For example, employers can:

  • Implement policies restricting fraternization between employees and superiors;
  • Establish expectations for employees’ behavior in the workplace;
  • Ensure employees understand the sexual harassment policies at work; and
  • Have the two employees inform Human Resources about the relationship.

Workplace relationships are more common than many employers might think, and they are not something employers should overlook. Remember, protecting the business must come first. That means employers must address these risks proactively.