It’s a reality of modern life—adults spend more time at work and with their co-workers than they do anywhere else, except perhaps in bed asleep. For many employees, workplace relationships extend beyond mere friendship.
According to recent studies, more than 40% of American marriages are the result of office romances. Even for those relationships that don’t end in matrimony, there’s no denying that dating in the workplace—something long deemed unprofessional or morally questionable—is becoming increasingly commonplace.
But despite that increased acceptance, one type typically remains off-limits: the supervisor-subordinate relationship.
Many companies that otherwise permit co-workers to date draw a bright line that prohibits managers from being romantically involved with those who report to them, either directly or indirectly. There are many good reasons for such a prohibition, not the least of which are the appearance of favoritism while the relationship progresses and the increased threat of retaliation if the romance ends.
Consequently, many companies maintain strict nonfraternization policies between supervisors and subordinates.
7th Circuit & the love connection
The federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Indiana recently affirmed the validity of such policies. In the case of Ellis v. UPS, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that violating a nonfraternization policy that prohibited supervisors from becoming romantically involved with subordinates constituted a legitimate business reason for terminating a manager.
Gerald Ellis, the supervisor in question, claimed that the company had violated Title VII by discriminating against him on the basis of his race (black) when it enforced the policy against him after he started dating (and ultimately married) a white subordinate.
The appellate court found, among other things, that the violation of the nonfraternization policy was a legitimate basis for terminating Ellis’ employment. Moreover, all the evidence presented to the court showed that the HR manager who made the firing decision treated all managers equally under the policy. Because Ellis could not show that his race—rather than his violation of a neutral policy—was the basis for his termination, the company prevailed. (Ellis v. UPS, No. 07-2811, 7th Cir., 2008)
Lessons for every company
The key lesson to take away from the Ellis decision is one that should be familiar to anyone with significant HR experience: Consistency, consistency, consistency!
A policy—even one that is neutral and nondiscriminatory on its face like the one in Ellis—will go only so far in protecting a company that makes decisions based on its terms. If a neutral policy is enforced unevenly, particularly by the same manager, it opens the door to discrimination and retaliation claims that a court may not be willing to dismiss.
Therefore, when dealing with the issue of workplace romance, particularly between supervisors and subordinates, consider the following points:
- Have a written policy. While companies could traditionally rely on an employee’s sense of workplace decorum to limit or restrict the notion of an office romance, that’s not the case anymore. Employees tend to expect their employers to have laissez-faire attitudes about private relationships. If your company is going to have a nonfraternization policy, you need to spell it out in the company handbook. That gives notice to employees and protection to senior managers.
- Train decision-makers. Make sure those in a position to enforce your nonfraternization policy understand where the line is and what to do if employees cross it. Is it OK to hire someone if they are already married to a supervisor? If a supervisor and subordinate start dating and refuse to end the relationship, do you terminate one, the other or both? How much evidence of a relationship is required before action must be taken? Proper training for those tasked with enforcing the policy is the key to company consistency. Which leads us to …
- BE CONSISTENT! It’s worth repeating: The best policy in the world isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if a company enforces it haphazardly. This is particularly true in situations where the same manager acts inconsistently. If your company is going to go through the effort to create a policy, make sure it is applied equally and fairly to all employees.
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