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Employee fraternization—The kiss of discord?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Q. We are a relatively small company, and it has come to our attention that two of our single employees have become romantically involved. One of the employees is in management. We have no policy addressing employee fraternization (if that is the correct term), and we wonder whether we can, or should, do something about it. Ideas?

A. I have heard that a significant number of marriages are the result of relationships that started at work. Most times employees will keep the relationship private—they don’t want their co-workers to know—but it is almost impossible to maintain secrecy for long if the relationship is anything more than casual.

As an employment lawyer, I know romantic relationships have the potential to create trouble. As a realist, however, it happens all the time and banning any socializing among employees is just not practical.

The Michigan Supreme Court has held that a rule prohibiting the employment of a spouse (“no spouse rule”) does not violate the statutory prohibition of discrimination based on marital status. Likewise, nothing prohibits an employer from adopting an anti-nepotism policy—many employers have them.

Other employers require employees to disclose family relationships (including marriage), and prohibit any direct reporting relationship or line of reporting among family members. It is common for employees not involved in the relationship to be concerned that employees in relationships are getting favored treatment within the organization. But courts have held that this favored treatment does not constitute illegal discrimination against others of the same sex who do not enjoy the benefit of such a relationship.

From my perspective, however, favored treatment of those involved in a work relationship is the least of your concerns. It’s what happens if the relationship goes south that creates problems. One of the two consenting parties may not agree that the relationship should end. There can be claims of sex discrimination or sexual harassment. The courts have been able to legally distinguish “sex” discrimination from bad relationships that are nonsexual, but it is a fuzzy line. 

There is no one right answer to your question. I personally favor a policy of disclosure of an employee’s relationship with co-workers and perhaps a policy prohibiting employment in the same chain of command. I advise getting information in an employment application about any family relationships with current employees.

A policy prohibiting dating or even disclosing dating relationships among co-workers may not be necessary, provided a supervisor is not dating a subordinate. That creates a very real risk of a sexual-harassment or discrimination claim. In the end, an employer has to decide for itself how it wants to handle these situations with the help of its employment advisor, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to discuss the situation with the involved employees as well.

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