I Think Two Of My Employees Are Dating Each Other
Steven Cesare, Ph.D.
A business owner from Kansas called me the other day to discuss some persistent rumors circulating throughout her company, that two employees have been spending an inordinate amount of work time together leading other employees to speculate they may be involved in a “relationship.”
Can anybody else see the flashing red lights and hear the loud screeching sirens going off right now?
Good. I’m glad to know I am not the only one.
The business owner and I had a lengthy, earnest conversation, replete with hypothetical scenarios, extenuating circumstances, and interpersonal sensitivities, that this frequently-addressed issue normally requires. Since the evidence was based solely on rumor and incidental observation, our discussion was even more speculative than had the relationship been formal. Nevertheless, the conversation proved fruitful.
Sexual harassment is the primary concern. By way of background, the business owner and I thoroughly reviewed both the definitions and applications of Hostile Work Environment and Quid-Pro-Quo Harassment. We determined that neither employee was a supervisor of the other; which would have made the conversation even more dire. Moreover, the participants were one male and one female (i.e., some would call her a “birthing person”). The business owner also verified the company’s EPLI policy explicitly identified sexual harassment as a point coverage.
I presented several alternative courses of action for the business owner to consider.
The first option was to do nothing: the control group. Based on the current context, immediate action was not necessarily mandated. Gossip, rumor, and a couple of comments do not require intervention. This alternative has merit in that it could be highly awkward if she confronted the participants when in fact it was actually a false positive. Thus, to play it safe for the time being, she could simply let the issue unfold to determine if it became more serious, which would then warrant her involvement at the appropriate time.
The second option was administrative. She could expand upon her company’s existing Sexual Harassment Policy found in the Employee Handbook. Likewise, she could add a Non-fraternization Policy prohibiting employees from engaging in personal relationships to the Employee Handbook. Next, believe it or not, there is something called a “Love Contract” that outlines myriad terms and agreements germane to consensual romance in the workplace; this document provides the company with a degree of shielded liability, once it is signed by the participants.
The third option was to have a meeting with both participants, present the circumstantial evidence to them, listen to their responses, and develop an agreement going forward. While potentially awkward, this option can also be paradoxically advantageous in that it represents transparent communication between the employees and the company. This type of meeting is not intended to be confrontational, posturing for an ultimatum or disciplinary action; but rather an inquisitive and factual conversation, seeking to address their side of the story, and developing potential courses of action, prior to any decision being administered.
If that extremely-sensitive conversation yielded the existence of a romantic relationship, subsequent discussions would naturally ensue (e.g., sexual harassment overview, work relationship biases, public displays of affection) to clarify roles, responsibilities, and follow-up. Conversely, if the extremely-sensitive conversation yielded their denial, a gracious acceptance of that fact followed by a demure closing statement by the owner would suffice as appropriate closure.
Drum roll. The business owner chose alternative three, revealing no personal relationship between the employees. Mutual professional appreciation for the issue was conveyed by the participants and the owner.
The flashing red lights and loud screeching sirens have stopped. For the moment…
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