HR Management & Compliance

Subordinate Dating: ‘Most Dangerous Workplace Activity’

What about supervisors asking subordinates for dates? “It’s not recommended, in fact, it’s the most dangerous action in the workplace,” says Attorney Jonathan Segal.

Segal’s remarks came as part of his “Harassment Quiz” at SHRM’s recent Annual Convention and Exposition in New Orleans. Segal is a partner in the Philadelphia office of law firm Duane Morris LLP.

Supervisors Dating Subordinates

The issue of subordinate dating is an issue of power, Segal says. He explains the possible outcomes.

Supervisor asks the subordinate out, she says sure, they date, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Any harassment? No, says Segal.

Supervisor asks the subordinate out, she says no, that’s cool, and there are no future problems. Any harassment? No, says Segal.

“Now let’s go to the real world,” he says. Because in the real world, how does a subordinate say no? Not wanting to say what she really feels (“I’d rather hang by pins in my eyes than date you”), she says “I’m busy.” The boss hears, “She’d love to, but she can’t this time.” So he asks again. And again. Now it’s a problem for sure.

First Time, Second Time

One good way to talk to managers is to make the point that some things go over the line the first time (for example, “Let’s have sex,”  or the use of the “N” word) and some things go over the line the second time (the persistent dating requests).


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Now Comes the PA

Now back to the scenario of the supervisor who asked for a date, the subordinate refused, and it appeared that there was no harassment. So far so good, says Segal, but in the real world, now comes the performance appraisal time, and guess what, it’s a negative one.

The subordinate will claim that the poor appraisal was due to her refusing the date request. Now merely asking for a date has morphed into a quid pro quo harassment case.

Take the case in which the boss and subordinate do date happily for a while, but the romance ends, says Segal. And again, there’s a poor appraisal, or someone else gets a coveted promotion.

Now the subordinate can argue that the dating wasn’t consensual and that her poor appraisal or lack of a promotion was a result of the relationship having gone sour. Again, a seemingly nonthreatening situation turns into a harassment suit.

Paramour Preference

Finally, says Segal, even when the relationship itself poses no problems, there’s still the issue of “paramour preference.” That is, other employees who allege that they are being unfairly treated on the basis of sex because promotions and raises are going to the person having sex with the boss.

‘Other than that, it’s risk free’

“Other than that,” says Segal lightly, “asking for dates is risk free.” In your training, he suggests, stress that when people are in boss-subordinate positions, even attempting to date is risky—it gives a club to the subordinate that he or she can use down the road. “My recommendation,” Segal says, “is to dissuade.”

Some organizations require that managers and supervisors report to management before they start dating, he notes. The company then decides whether there will be a conflict of interest and takes appropriate steps as needed.


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As an alternative, Segal adds, your policy might say that you can’t date anyone with supervisory authority or the ability to significantly influence employment actions. (By the way, he points out, that probably includes HR in almost every case.)

If you opt to prohibit dating, Segal says, there’s one important thing to do before implementing the policy. Check out your senior managers to see if they have a history of dating employees. If senior managers have dated or are dating subordinates, you’ve got a problem, because if you don’t say no there, your policy is not meaningful.

Finally, Segal says, recognize that prohibition of dating may simply drive relationships underground. “I’d rather have them out in the open so I can manage them,” he adds.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll get Segal’s take on the subtle but dangerous practice of avoidance discrimination. 

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