Surprisingly, one in three employees are in a romantic relationship with someone they work with, and more than half of all-American professionals say they have participated in a workplace romance at some point.
The restaurant industry, potentially a hotbed for workplace romances, poses its own set of challenges. The industry tends to include a younger workforce who are more likely to be single. In addition, restaurant staff work long, late hours and are known to socialize after hours, often including alcohol. The need for cheerful, smiling and welcoming personalities that work collaboratively in tight quarters can sometimes lead co-workers to misinterpret signals or unintended touching. In some cases, romances and social relationships result in a positive work environment, but also an increased opportunity for harassment.
There may be competition for preferred shifts and hours, and supervisors may give the impression that the path to receiving those preferred shifts and hours may include unwritten rules set by the manager for a specific employee. A Harvard Business Review study in 2018 concluded that 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men in the restaurant industry reported some form of sexual harassment. With such alarming statistics, it’s no wonder restaurants are concerned.
McDonalds’ CEO Steve Easterbrook is the latest CEO who lost his job for having a consensual relationship with an employee in violation of company policy. The potential for litigation that began even before the #MeToo movement has led more companies to adopt anti-fraternization or dating policies. According to the Society for Human Resources Management’s “Workplace Romance” survey, the number of companies with policies addressing consensual relationships doubled from 2005 to 2013 with 42 percent of employers having a written or verbal policy on workplace romances.
While company policy is unlikely to deter employees from making a love connection, an anti-fraternization policy gives the employer a foundation from which to make decisions before a situation arises. The policy is not intended to prevent employees who work together from dating, since it’s very likely that couples will meet at work. However, the policy needs to identify what is expected of employees and be clear that workplace romances should not interfere with work product or cause any disruption. Employees should understand that the employer will not become involved in an employee’s personal life unless the employee involves the employer by drawing attention to the relationship.
Workplace relationships can be very complicated. Is either of the parties married? Does a spouse or other family member work for the employer? Do the parties have equal expectations in the relationship? Does one person want a long-term relationship and the other just want to keep it casual? How will the relationship affect other employees in the work group?
A carefully crafted anti-fraternization policy lets everybody know how to navigate the office romance process. While the temptation may be to keep the relationship a secret, in the technological world we live in, don’t count on it! New relationships tend to attract suspicion and the hidden sleuth is likely to emerge, and then the secret is out!
Employees who date or are married to another employee must ensure that the relationship does not interfere with or disrupt work assignments or other work relationships. Should the relationship cause interference or disruption that violates the employer’s harassment policy, it should be reported in accordance with policy.
Failure to abide by this policy may subject the employee to discipline up to and including termination.
In addition, the policy must outline expectations should a romance arise between a supervisor and a subordinate. Supervisor is defined broadly to include any person that has authority over another. Keep in mind, whenever there is a real or perceived imbalance in organizational authority or power, there is no such thing as a consensual relationship.
Because of the loss of flexibility in assigning work to employees and the temptation or ability to take an adverse employment action against a rejected party, romantic relationships between a manager and a reporting staff member should probably be prohibited, as in the case of McDonalds. This can be difficult in an industry where romance often blooms, so the policy must address what to do in situations when a supervisor/manager and subordinate are attracted to one another. If a manager determines that he/she wants to date a subordinate, the manager should immediately contact human resources. These days, “dating” may mean different things to different people, so the words should be clearly defined. Rest assured, the human resources staff does not have a prurient interest in the lives of employees, but they can offer an objective ear to sort out details. Carefully managing the process saves everyone heartbreak in the long run. If you are a supervisor, the best option is to completely separate yourself from the subordinate.
Many couples may claim that the relationship is consensual. Don’t believe it! In the workplace, the power to affect workplace decisions belongs to the supervisor. The subordinate “agreeing” not to claim harassment later may not be worth the paper it’s written on. The whispered promise not to take action if the relationship fails sounds comforting at the time. However, when the relationship fails, no employer wants to be caught in the middle of a scorned lover seeking vengeance. No employer wants that fury unleashed at the workplace.
Linda Bond Edwards is a labor and employment attorney with RumbergerKirk. As a former corporate director of human resources, Edwards brings to her legal practice the pragmatic and real-world experiences arising from the employer-employee relationship.