HR Management & Compliance

Can an Employer Prohibit Employees from Dating One Another?

For many, the workplace is a prime opportunity to meet someone you may eventually have a romantic interest in. You’ve already got something in common and you can get to know one another quickly.

However, employers may have another opinion on the matter. Many employers see the idea of employees dating one another as potentially threatening productivity or even opening up too much liability for the employer. But can they prohibit it? Let’s take a look.

What Are the Potential Pitfalls of Employee Romances?

First, let’s look at some of the most common reasons employers may desire to curb employees’ desire for one another. The employers may fear:

  • Productivity losses.These could occur if there is too much time spent on personal pursuits rather than work. There could also be problems if the relationship becomes a distraction for other employees in any way.
  • Security issues. This may be a concern if a personal romantic dispute becomes violent.
  • Favoritism. This is especially a risk if one of the partners is in a supervisory position or otherwise can grant favors for the other. IN some areas, sexual favoritism is also illegal or could be deemed discriminatory.
  • Retaliatory behavior. If the relationship goes sour, one partner (or both) may not be inclined to work cooperatively with the other. If escalated, it could even become a situation in which one former partner has the ability to demote, terminate, or give negative reviews to the other—all of which could lead to problems (including lawsuits).
  • Sexual assault or harassment charges. If dating is allowed, it may foster an environment where more activity occurs that could give rise to a harassment claim. For example, if someone in a supervisory position requests dates as a prerequisite for positive performance reviews, that would be sexual harassment. Additionally, if a regular relationship ends, it could result in a situation where one former partner has a claim of harassment against the other. Even regular relationship activities can create an atmosphere that promotes harassment of others.
  • Turnover. If there are relationship problems, there’s an increased likelihood that one or both of the partners will opt to leave the employer to remedy the situation. This is also a concern when the relationship is going well—a partner may feel their options are limited at the company due to the relationship. Either way, higher turnover can result.
  • Reputation damage. Even in the absence of any illegal activity, it can still turn heads if a relationship is discovered, especially between a supervisor and a subordinate. This can cause other problems, such as loss of confidence from clients or shareholders.

Can an Employer Prohibit Employees from Dating One Another?

So, can an employer do something about these concerns? Is it legal to fully prohibit employees from dating one another? Or does that overstep boundaries and put too much restriction on an employee’s personal life?

Legally speaking, in most states an employer can enact a policy that prohibits employees from dating one another. (Check your state and local laws for exceptions, which do exist and are usually centered on employee privacy or limitations for employers on prohibiting nonwork activities.)

However, even if legal, banning any work romantic involvement can come with its own consequences. Many people meet at work before beginning a romantic relationship. Prohibiting it could decrease morale and could even result in losing employees who wish to date coworkers but cannot. In practical terms, it can be incredibly difficult to enforce, too.

Short of banning all workplace dating, here are some other options that many employers choose:

  • Some employers limit the prohibition to only those relationships in which one romantic partner has a role of authority over the other. This minimizes many of the risks noted above without prohibiting dating altogether.
  • Another policy some employers opt for is prohibiting couples from working together directly, such as in the same department.
  • Other employers opt for policies that do not ban dating, but instead merely discourage it. This alone can be enough to avoid some issues, but it stops short of being an actual prohibition. The problem, however, is that in the absence of a specific ban, what does the policy actually do? (Answer: Not much.)
  • Some employers simply require disclosure of relationships. After disclosure, the employer can take steps to minimize problems. For example, they may have couples sign acknowledgements stating that they will act professionally. Others provide counseling for the couples to ensure they understand how their relationship could impact enforcement of the employer’s policies, such as the harassment policy.

If an employer opts to implement any such dating policy, it’s important to enforce it fairly and consistently—not in a way that discriminates. For example, if an employer’s policy dictates that one of the partners must leave the organization if a relationship is discovered, it cannot always be the woman who is forced to leave. That would be discriminatory.

*This article does not constitute legal advice. Be sure to check your local and state laws and consult legal counsel when necessary.

 


About Bridget Miller:

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.