No-dating policies: How far should yours go?

It’s nearly futile to try to deflect Cupid’s arrows. Still, many organizations do set policies to minimize the potential legal fallout from co-workers’ romantic relationships. UPS recently got sued over its policy that bans supervisors from dating ANY hourly employee—regardless whether the employee is a direct report. So, do love relationships trump house rules? In this case, the court sighed, “Love and marriage are the losers; something doesn’t seem quite right about that.”

Case In Point: Gerald Ellis worked for UPS for 21 years, successfully rising from driver to management. Ellis, who was black, fell in love with a white female hourly employee in the company call center. They kept their relationship secret for three years because of the company’s strict nonfraternization policy.

UPS’ policy makes it a firing offense for managers to engage in a romantic relationship with any hourly employee, even if there’s no direct reporting relationship. UPS says the policy eliminates any chance of favoritism. Plus, the company moves employees around so often that it’s likely a supervisor will end up being the boss of his or her paramour.

Ultimately, the HR manager found out and told Ellis to either end the relationship or leave UPS. However, the pair secretly got engaged and married the next year. No one knew. But, the following summer, the HR manager saw Ellis at a concert “acting affectionately with a white woman.” He confirmed it was the UPS hourly employee. Ellis was fired for violating the nonfraternization policy and for “dishonesty.”

Ellis sued for race discrimination under Title VII, claiming that UPS only sporadically enforced the nonfraternization policy and that his black couriers were outwardly angry at him for being romantically involved with a white woman. He cited co-workers’ comments, such as “there were plenty of good sisters out there (to date).” UPS countered that its policy was consistently enforced without regard to race. (Ellis v. United Parcel Services, 4/29/08).

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How did this case end … and what lessons can be learned?

Both a lower court and the 7th Circuit appellate sided with UPS, saying Ellis had no proof that other couples were treated differently.

The court also said, in an interesting side note, “When a company like UPS runs expensive ads that ask ‘What can Brown do for you?’ it might be wise to ask if this (nonfraternization) policy is really worth all the fuss this case has created … Although UPS, for the reasons we have stated, comes out on top in this case, love and marriage are the losers. Something just doesn’t seem quite right about that.”

3 Lessons Learned … Without Having to Go to Court

1. Enforce consistently. If your organization does has a ”no-dating policy,” make sure it’s enforced it across the board with all employees. If not, get ready for a discrimination claim.

2. Be realistic. Complete no-dating policies are difficult to police. Think twice before adopting one.

3. Prohibit dating among direct reports. Many companies have policies that allow dating, but prohibit couples from reporting directly to one another. The burden is on the couple to inform the organization of the relationship and then the dotted line is changed. At a minimum, this is a best practice to avoid claims of favoritism and appearances of impropriety.