Late-night talk show host David Letterman came under fire earlier this month after admitting—to ward off a blackmail plot—that he’d had sexual relationships with several female staff members.
The incident sent the HR blogs buzzing. While Letterman is unlikely to make any Top 10 Lists of good bosses, does his misbehavior rise to the level of sexual harassment? And what’s the lesson from all of this?
A key point to remember is that, when it comes to boss/employee relationships, consent doesn’t mean it isn’t harassment. Any form of quid pro quo ("this for that") exchange of sexual favors for job rewards can spark a sexual harassment suit.
If even an implied connection exists between the relationship and an employee's pay, perks and job conditions, the employer could be on the hook for a sexual harassment claim. No Letterman staffers have filed harassment suits … yet.
Advice: The rise in sexual harassment lawsuits is prompting some organizations to place a complete ban on all office romances. That goes too far and, most likely, would be impossible to enforce.
Instead, you’d be wise to adopt an anti-fraternization policy that bans relationships between employees who hold a boss/subordinate relationship. You may even want to extend the dating ban to employees who work in the same department.
Boss/employee relationships are rarely equal and may be bad for morale if co-workers think the lover is being favored in the workplace.
Another option: Don’t ban the supervisor/subordinate relationships, but require managers to tell you or other top company officers if they get involved in a "power-differentiated" relationship. You can have that worker report to a different manager.