Workplace Romances Can Affect Your Business, Here’s How
McDonald’s recently ousted CEO, Steve Easterbrook for engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee. Easterbrook joins a growing list of executives forced out over relationships with employees, even if they are “consensual,” as more brand-aware companies adopt rules against dating subordinates in the wake of #MeToo complaints. Companies are, correctly, reviewing their codes of conduct and policies against sexual harassment and adding consensual relationships to anti-harassment policies.
It’s not just executives who are treating the workplace as a daytime dating pool. Recent surveys demonstrate that more than one-half the workforce has engaged in workplace romance. At the beginning of this year, Forbes Magazine reported that 58 percent of employees have engaged in a romantic relationship with colleagues. A surprising 72 percent of those over 50 years old have been romantically involved with a coworker.
Office romances can be disastrous for a company’s brand integrity. In an era when gossip is not contained to the area in front of the watercooler, but often widely discussed publicly on social media, an executive’s transgressions at work can quickly tarnish a company’s brand and integrity. Last year, hundreds of Google employees walked out in protest over how Google executives handled sexual harassment claims, chronicling their stories on social media and garnering international headlines and media attention. In the case of McDonald’s, Easterbrook readily conceded that his relationship with an employee demonstrated poor judgment and violated company policy prohibiting manager relationships with employees. “This was a mistake,” Easterbrook wrote in an email. “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on.” Still, Easterbrook’s case dominated headlines immediately following his termination and McDonald’s shares sank as much as 3 percent, wiping $4 billion from the company’s market capitalization, the day after his termination.
In addition to tarnishing the corporate brand and violating articulated corporate values, workplace romances, especially between an executive and a subordinate, can lead to a sexual harassment complaint at any point, even if at one point the relationship was consensual. For example, what may have begun as consensual between a supervisor and a subordinate, can easily move into a quid pro quo situation where promises of benefits or threats of harm are offered in exchange for favors, dates or the condition that the relationship continue. Often, the evidence will come down simply to one person’s word against another’s, which results in protracted and very public litigation.
In cases of quid pro quo sexual harassment, the company is strictly liable for the supervisor or executive’s purely personal conduct. If the relationship between the superior and the employee ends or creates a hostile environment for others, or an environment where the subordinate involved in the relationship receives preferential treatment and assignment, then it may form yet another basis upon which a sexual harassment suit can be filed.
Moreover, workplace romances can decimate corporate culture. Employees want the workplace to be fair and want a fair opportunity to succeed and advance. Often these relationships chip away at a culture of professionalism and neutrality. An executive, or superior, engaging in a relationship with a subordinate compromises the appearance of neutrality and does little to assure the rest of the workplace (not engaged in a relationship with the boss) that they are not being deprived of fair treatment and promotion opportunities earned on their merits.
For instance, it is difficult to give an impartial performance appraisal to someone with whom you are involved in a sexual relationship; or, assignments may be made based upon out-of-state travel so the executive and subordinate can “escape” together on business. Relationships at work, especially between a superior and a subordinate, create a culture where those inclined to prey on others are emboldened, and those not willing to reciprocate are alienated.
In the past, companies have concerned themselves with policies against unwelcome sexual harassment; however, thanks in large part to an education of the entire workforce through the #MeToo movement, employers should now consider policies regarding consensual workplace romances as well. It is now necessary for employers to step up and guide employees through the entire relationship process. It is the employer’s duty to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable in the workplace and that means confronting workplace romances directly, transparently and immediately.
Employers Should Enforce a Strict Policy
An all-out ban against dating or any kind of romantic relationship between employees is largely unenforceable and not very realistic in light of how many people have or are engaged in workplace dating.
There is one situation where strict rules against dating, as in the case of McDonald’s policy against an executive dating an employee, makes sense. Executives, superiors, managers or supervisors should not be allowed to date a subordinate or a direct report. Allowing executives and superiors to date employees opens the door to sexual harassment complaints, indiscretion and brand degradation. It is nearly impossible to protect against favoritism in these situations and nothing corrodes a professional culture faster than sexual favoritism. The only way to reduce potential harm to corporate values and culture, professional reputation, productivity and legal liability is to prohibit dating in these situations and, like McDonalds, enforce a zero tolerance for violations of this strict policy.
Employers Should Adopt a Romance Policy
With regard to romances between coworkers, the employer should establish a workplace relationship policy that is based upon honesty, transparency and disclosure. In other words, the employer needs to provide a policy to guide and teach employees to professionally pursue workplace romance.
A new workplace romance policy should place an equal burden on both parties to inform the human resources department that the couple is engaged in a consensual relationship. The policy should articulate simple rules of conduct. For example, the parties agree how to handle themselves at work following a disagreement (or a night of romance, for that matter). The policy should also address what will happen should a conflict of interest arise (or if the parties are unable to work together following a break-up). Will the employer allow one of the parties to transfer to another department or location; if so, how will that be decided (and the employer should retain the option to make the decision without regard to any protected class characteristics).
In addition to disclosure and a romance policy, the dating coworkers should agree to a Consensual Personal Relationship in the Workplace Agreement that sets forth that the relationship is voluntary and consensual; that all forms of sexual harassment are prohibited; that the couple agrees that their relationship will not have a negative impact on their work; that the couple will not engage in public displays of affection or other behavior that might create a hostile work environment for others; what to do in the event of a breakup or if one party needs to transfer; conflicts of interest, an agreement against retaliation following a breakup, and an overall agreement to pursue the relationship professionally while at work.
The new workplace rules require a romance policy that sets forth accountability, responsibility and transparency on the part of each person who not only works with, but now is romantically involved with, their co-worker. A romance agreement is just that—a love contract—that proposes the terms by which a couple will professionally pursue their relationship in the workplace. The agreement should help the couple identify some of the pitfalls that may come as a result of their relationship and ask the parties to agree, beforehand, on how they will handle difficult situations, always with an emphasis on handling their relationship at work professionally.
These tools also provide HR with an opportunity to be transparent and discuss outcomes. While neither the policy nor the agreement will prevent all problems, it does provide HR with a tool to help the couple manage difficult situations (i.e., reminding the couple that they agreed to conduct themselves professionally at work following a break-up, no matter how sour). In addition, it provides HR an opportunity to discuss consent and review the company’s sexual harassment policy with both parties so that a workplace romance does not lead to a sexual harassment claim down the road.
It is imperative that employers get involved in personal matters of the heart that might have once been considered “not our business.” When it comes to executives or superiors dating subordinates, there is simply too much at stake to allow such relationships in the workplace. When it comes to coworkers, the employer needs to articulate its expectations, set up a safe environment for everyone and require that dating coworkers pursue their relationship with professionalism.