Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love, which is a good time to remind employees about the minefields that can develop when intimate relationships develop in the workplace. While this is generally cause for celebration, there are serious “do’s and don’ts” that apply to love developing at work.
It is Never Appropriate in a Supevisor-Suboordinate Relationship
The greatest risk arises when a personal relationship develops between a supervisor (or a boss up the chain of command) and a subordinate employee. General legal principles developed in enforcing sexual harassment laws make clear that when this occurs, this power imbalance, and the pressure any subordinate employee feels to please and follow the directions of management, means that the ensuing relationship is very susceptible to being considered “non-consensual,” which is ripe for a sexual harassment claim, especially if the relationship doesn’t last. Therefore, most employers, in additional to prohibiting and defining sexual harassment generally, have additional policies prohibiting this type of intimate personal relationship between a supervisor, or anyone in management, and a subordinate employee.
The power of love, however, is sometimes greater than any policy prohibition. Therefore, in a circumstance where true feeling of love develop between a supervisor or manager and a subordinate employee, the best step to take is to immediately be transparent with the employer, preferably together, to make the budding relationship clear and ask for appropriate direction. The earlier in the relationship, the better. The result of this transparency will generally involve either a transfer (usually affecting the subordinate employee), or, when this isn’t possible, one of the employees being required to resign. Employers have every right to be aware of and prohibit these kind of relationships, so the only appropriate step is full transparency as early as possible.
What About When there is No Reporting Relationship of Chain of Command Issues
In the absence of this kind of direct chain of command issues, if there is any kind of power dynamic imbalance, the same transparency instruction should be followed. This is especially true for the manager or executive in this budding relationship. Promising careers have been adversely affected when this kind of transparency isn’t followed. Don’t assume that simply because you both don’t work in the same area, the employer has no right to be apprised of a relationship developing. Often, the policies prohibiting this kind of relationship in the workplace are broader than just when there is direct reporting or chain of command issues.
Co-workers, however, usually have far greater latitude for this kind of relationship to develop, without any adverse policy-based or legal implications. Even in this circumstance, however, I counsel my clients to be transparent with the employer. While the relationship may be allowed to continue and even celebrated, many employers want to be sure that “couples” have a clear set of expectations about how their personal life and issues need to be kept completely separate from the workplace.
What if there is no Relationship, but Just a Potential Interest?
This scenario, especially when there is either a direct or extended reporting relationship, is a true minefield for sexual harassment claims to explode. If you have a position of any authority in an organization and are developing these kind of feelings for a subordinate or anyone in your “pyramid” of your authority, acting on these feelings is rife with the potential for misunderstanding and even claims that this expression of interest, or even what you may consider to be innocent flirting consistent with these feelings, are acts of sexual harassment. Therefore, the safest approach is to completely suppress any impulse to act on these feelings, and only follow the transparency instructions above if there is no doubt that the interest is reciprocal. While individuals may ask “how will I know if there is any interest if I don’t act like I’m interested,” that’s the price of behaving professionally, in all instances, in the workplace.