Relationships in the Workplace?

While many employee handbooks prohibit or frown upon interoffice romances, do companies really have the right to intervene on private relationships? Some companies believe that office romances, even secret affairs, can pose a risk to the company. But, what are the rights of employees when it comes to office romance? What happens if an employee gets fired for dating a co-worker? What happens if a relationship or break-up leads to a hostile work environment?

Here are our answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about office romance and sexual harassment:

Can employers ban consensual office romance?
In most states, including Minnesota, employers can impose policies that prohibit employees from dating. Limitations may exist, related to employee privacy and prohibition of non-work related activities so it is important to consult with an attorney regarding the specifics of your case. Many employers have also found that banning office romance has unintended consequences, including the loss of employees who want to date, decreased morale, and a difficulty in enforcement.

Can I date my co-worker?
Employers are more likely to be concerned about relationships between managers and superiors and employees rather than romances that occur between two equals, however, company policies may prohibit you from dating a co-worker. Your employer may have specific rules related to dating, including disclosure, so it is important to consult with your employment handbook and an experienced employment lawyer.

Do I need to disclose my relationship to my employer?
Some company policies require that employees disclose their relationship with another employee, hoping to minimize any problems that could arise. This may include having both parties acknowledge that they should act professionally and undergo counseling to ensure that they have a clear understanding of how the relationship could play a role in sexual harassment policies.

What if my employer’s relationship policy is discriminatory?
Employment policies related to office romance must be applied and enforced fairly, equally and consistently to all employees. Any policy that discriminates could leave the company open to liability. For example, if a policy dictates that one of the partners must leave the organization, it cannot always be the woman who is forced to leave. Similarly, rules must apply equally to heterosexual and same sex couples. If you believe that your employer discriminated against you, it is important to consult with an attorney regarding the details of your case.

Is it illegal to have a relationship with my boss?
No interoffice relationship is “illegal,” but company policies are likely to prohibit relationships between superiors and employees. These relationships could lead to sexual harassment or discrimination liability for companies. In addition to legal complexities, some employers may see office romance as threatening productivity. Another danger with supervisor-employee romances is that one party can genuinely feel that the relationship is consensual, but the other party may feel obliged to engage or continue the relationship just to keep their job.

What happens if I get fired for dating my co-worker or boss?
Employers have been known to crack down on employees and superiors who become involved in consensual romantic relationships. State and federal laws give private employers the right to terminate at-will employees for violation of company policies, including interoffice romance.

Many employees suffer from disciplinary action if they have failed to comply with company policies, such as disclosure agreements. However, no employee should be subject to retaliatory action if their case involved discrimination or sexual harassment. If you believe you have suffered from discrimination or retaliation, you may have the right to take legal action in the event of termination.

Important considerations related to interoffice romance
Office romances are more likely to become an issue for an employer if they lead to disruption or potential liability. Situations that could result in disciplinary action include:

  • Dating a subordinate or your boss
  • Dating someone on your team
  • A relationship that is damaging to your job performance
  • Sneaking out of the office or losing work time
  • Public displays of affection
  • Disruptions related to fights or break-ups
  • A relationship that could lead to claims of favoritism

Employees would prefer to keep their private lives private, and yet, employers do have an interest in appropriately managing interoffice romance. However, an interference of your privacy by an employer could be against the law. If you believe that you have suffered a privacy violation, discrimination or retaliation related to office romance or sexual harassment, you should consult with an experienced employment law attorney.

At Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta LLP in Minneapolis, our experienced lawyers can help you protect yourself in any dispute related to termination, discrimination, sexual harassment, or privacy violations.  Call 612-252-3570 for more information or to learn about your rights related to office romance.