Workplace romance is a fact of life, right? After all, many of us spend more time at work than at home. We meet, we get attracted, we get together. On rare occasions, it’s happily ever after. More often, it’s not.
Can workplace romance be a legal issue for employers? Yes! Between co-workers with equal power and authority it’s less problematic if conduct at work stays professional. However, between a manager or supervisor and an employee — very risky! To explore this vital issue, let’s peek in on some juicy happenings at a fictional company with multiple locations!
David, a store manager, and Sheila an employee at another location, have a “thing” going. Sheila’s store manager, Stan, is one of David’s best friends.
Perhaps you think since there’s no actual reporting relationship between David and Sheila, no problem. See if you still think that after hearing about this meeting between David and Sheila at their favorite watering hole. Sheila’s waiting in their special booth with a Long Island Ice Tea when David arrives. He’s stressed.
-“What can I do to put a smile on that handsome face?” she purrs.
-“I wish it were that simple”, he says, pulling away.
-“What’s so complicated?”, she asks. “Oh, speaking of complications, you need to call your buddy, Stan. He told me Sandy is going to Vegas with you guys next month instead of me. He said if I go again it would look like favoritism. I told him you need me there – you know, for “staff support” – and you’d call him.
-David’s upset. “Why did you do that? That’s his decision. You want everyone knowing our little secret?”
She laughs. “Secret? Get real The rumor mill’s the most efficient system in this place!”
He’s not amused. “Listen to me”, he says. “This morning, before the manager’s meeting, I’m in a stall in the men’s room. Larry comes in with the owner. They don’t know I’m there. I hold my feet up. Larry’s talking about this married manager who’s having a fling with an employee at another store, getting her perks, taking her on trips, putting himself and the company at risk. I’m thinking, “Who is this idiot’? Larry says his name. It’s me. Sheila, we have to stop”.
-“I know you don’t mean that!” she says and tries to laugh it off.
David has three kids and a decade of college tuition ahead. That morning, his career flashed before his eyes.
“Things are out of control”, he tells her. “I cashed in favors with Stan to get you those trips, the bonus, the days off. Stan’s taken heat over it. I can’t call him about Vegas! What happens when another employee goes to H.R. or the owner and asks what or who they have to do to get perks and points right at me? That could be sexual harassment, Sheila. That stuff is all over the news! I have to think about my career.
Steamy enough for you? Memo Mendez and I, “recovering” professional actors who have been workplace training experts for 15+ years, often perform this powerful scene in our live interactive Sexual Harassment training. At the end, “David” interacts with the audience re: the learning points in the scene and asks “What should I do now”?
The most common suggestion: update your resume! David’s conduct creates risk and makes him a liability. Most participants agree that while it may be too late, David should go to H.R. or the owner, tell the truth, and see if there’s any way to get things back on track. His efforts to sweet talk Sheila and any threats of retaliation only dig his hole deeper. It is wise to have a clear policy in place re: personal relationships and make sure your team is educated about it!
HERE ARE SOME KEY POINTS IN ADDRESSING THIS ISSUE WITH YOUR TEAM:
• Sexual harassment claims may arise from co-workers who do not get perks but are equally or more deserving of them.
• Favoritism is illegal and devastating to morale, teamwork and productivity. Under some state laws, even the perception of pervasive favoritism can constitute harassment.
• While “Sheila” consented, she may claim the relationship wasn’t welcome, that she was intimidated and fearful of refusing. If managers have the power to get perks, they have the power to take them away.
• Power abuse by members of management is indefensible.
• “David” and “Stan” may have personal liability for engaging in illegal favoritism.
• Employees as well as managers should exercise personal responsibility re: accepting perks they may not have earned. “Sheila” put her professional reputation and credibility in question by her actions.
• Personal relationships when there is NOT equal power and authority are fraught with peril and should be avoided!
• Personal relationships between managers and direct reports are against the policy at many companies. If that occurs, managers should advise H.R. or ownership so the situation can be resolved, often by transferring the senior person.