Can an employer restrict workers from dating one another?

Many couples first meet in the workplace, because that is where many individuals spend a large portion of their waking hours. Yet relationships are not always permanent, and when a relationship comes to an end, sexual harassment and retaliation may begin.  At the Akin Law Group we understand the difficult position you’re in when your relationship ends but you still have to see your ex at the office.  If your former partner is harassing you or retaliating against you for ending the relationship, we can help you put an end to it once and for all.

Common examples of sexual harassment after a relationship ends

What may be deemed frustrating or “annoying” outside of the office may constitute sexual harassment in the office. Some common examples of workplace harassment by a former partner include:

  • A relationship ends, but one of the former partners continues to pursue the other partner in the workplace. The partner may still touch the other in a sexual manner, expose himself or talk in a sexually explicit and seductive or demanding manner.
  • One of the partners may still pursue the other and claim that he or she is just trying to “patch things up,” despite the fact that the other party wants nothing of the sort. In some of these cases, especially if the pursuer is the victim’s supervisor, the employer can be held liable for sexual harassment.
  • After a breakup, one of the partners may start to date someone else at or outside of work where the other partner gossips about them or speaks negatively about the parties or tries to prevent the relationship through coercion at work.
  • After a breakup, one of the partners may speak negatively about the other or tell stories about their sexual relationship or share private information about the other partner with individuals at work, which may often be very embarrassing.
  • An employer, supervisor, or manager dates a subordinate employee. In cases where this occurs, it may be questionable whether the relationship is consensual, as the two parties hold unequal amounts of power. This is especially true if the supervisor and subordinate break up, and the supervisor tries to get back at his or her former partner through retaliation in the workplace.

What you should do if your former partner harasses you in the workplace

If your former partner continues to pursue you or harasses you in the workplace, there are several things that you must do.

  • Ensure that he or she knows that the conduct is unwelcome. After you do so, do not accept any invitations for personal interactions outside of work, flirt, or send out any mixed signals. Make sure that your actions are unambiguous and are completely consistent with your desire for the harassing behavior to stop.
  • If the conduct persists, complain to a responsible party in your company (to the ex’s supervisor or to the Human Resources Department) and make your complaint in writing or through e-mail (companies will often deny that you ever made the complaint).
  • If your company does not properly respond to your complaint or turns against you by siding with your ex or retaliates against you, consider taking legal action by contacting an attorney.

It is not always easy to prove that your former partner’s conduct is unwelcome when it was previously consensual. One thing that can greatly strengthen a case of this nature is if the person you dated is your boss or supervisor, and if he/she took a tangible employment action against you. If your former partner fired, demoted, or suspended you after the end of your relationship, you may have a higher chance of succeeding in court. To ensure you take the right steps, consult with one of the attorneys at the Akin Law Group for Free and make sure you are protected.

Being affectionate in the workplace may be a problem.

If you are currently in a relationship with an individual in your workplace, it is important that you not engage in public displays of affection or sexual banter at the workplace. Despite the consensual nature of such interactions, such displays may make co-workers uncomfortable and create a hostile work environment for them. This can not only result in liability for you, but also for your employer, as they permitted the relationship to continue in a manner that created a hostile atmosphere.

An additional problem that may arise is that public displays of affection may encourage other individuals to engage in behavior that can be deemed sexual harassment in the workplace towards you or others. An individual who sees others engaged in displays of affection at work may begin to feel that it is acceptable to:

  • Pressure you or a co-worker or subordinate for a date
  • Make repeated propositions or requests for sex or sexual “favors”
  • Gossip or speak in a derogatory or sexually explicit manner which may cause the creation of a hostile work environment

These actions may cause hostilities for you and result in a sexual harassment lawsuit or liability for the company.

Supervisor-subordinate relationships in the workplace

Supervisor-subordinate romances can be problematic because of the power differential between the two parties involved. Because the supervisor often has the power to suspend, terminate, or provide additional benefits to the subordinate, questions may arise over whether the relationship is consensual or not.

An additional problem that may arise in the course of a supervisor-subordinate relationship is favoritism, where the supervisor grants his or her romantic partner promotions, raises, or additional benefits. A survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 40 percent of respondents said that employees complained of favoritism in the workplace between individuals involved in a relationship. Perceptions of unfairness and favoritism can ultimately damage office morale and create an atmosphere of resentment and anger towards you within the workplace.

Generally, favoritism (towards someone you are dating) is not considered a violation of Title VII. Nevertheless, there are some exceptions to the rule; the EEOC has warned that in certain circumstances, employers may be held liable for favoritism. One such exception is if a quid pro quoscenario is implied by an employee’s compliance with a supervisor’s advances. If, for example, a woman consents to her supervisor’s advances and receives a promotion, other individuals who were qualified for the job may be able to claim that they were discriminated against. They could argue that the woman’s promotion showed that an implied condition of the promotion was the provision of sexual favors.

This argument was successfully used in Miller v. California Department of Corrections, where female corrections officers alleged that their male supervisor’s favoritism towards employees whom he had consensual relationships with created a hostile work environment. The court found that if sexual favoritism was “severe and pervasive” enough, it could create a hostile environment that could be actionable in court, even if the individuals suing were not involved in the relationship themselves.

If you are suffering from harassment or a hostile work environment due to a supervisor-subordinate relationship, do not hesitate to contact the lawyers at Akin Law Group today.

What can employers do to avoid liability for relationships in the workplace?

In order to prevent problems related to workplace relationships, employers should create an explicit and uniform company-wide policy on dating. There are several different policies for an employer to choose from:

  • Complete Ban: Although this policy may appear to be straightforward, there are possible problems that may arise because of it. Employees may date in secret in spite of the ban, so the company may face difficulties in enforcing the policy. In addition, the company may still be held liable if a supervisor who used to date a subordinate is found to have engaged in harassing behavior.
  • Partial Ban: This type of ban prohibits dating between supervisors/employers/executives and subordinates.
  • Documentation and Management: This policy requires that employees disclose their workplace relationships to an HR department or supervisor. Generally, employees have to sign a document that states that they are in a consensual relationship and that they are aware of the company’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies.
  • Discrimination and Harassment Policy Only: The Company may choose not to have a policy on workplace relationships. However, the employer is still responsible for creating and enforcing sexual harassment and discrimination policies, and may be held liable for a supervisor’s misconduct.

If you have experienced harassment or a hostile work environment because of sexual relationships in the workplace, you may feel distressed or helpless, especially if your harasser is your supervisor or the boss. Don’t allow the situation to continue or worsen – For a Free and Confidential consultation, contact the sexual harassment lawyers at Akin Law Group at 212-825-1400 to learn more about your rights.