LEGALITY OF CORPORATE FRATERNIZATION POLICIES
Corporate anti-fraternization policies usually forbid relationships between supervisors and subordinates, but some go further and forbid any office romances no matter who is involved.
The legality of a fraternization policy depends on three factors – – the policy itself, the wording of the policy and the application of the policy.
Supervisors and Subordinates
The most typical anti-fraternization policy prohibits romantic or sexual relationships between supervisors and their direct subordinates. This policy is intended to protect the company from liability and other problems. For instance, if a sales manager starts dating one of her employees the other sales people might become resentful and scrutinize every interaction for evidence of favoritism. If the relationship ends and the employee involved in the relationship is later terminated, he could sue the company for sexual harassment. Because of the risk to employee morale and the possibility of a lawsuit or discrimination claim, many companies either ban this type of relationship completely or try to reduce the potential harm by transferring the employee to a different supervisor once the relationship becomes public. Policies of this type have consistently been upheld by the courts.
Some companies ban consenting relationships between coworkers to protect the company from potential problems caused by distraction or romantic conflict. For example, if two employees at a deli start dating, they may go through a phase where they pay so much attention to each other that their work suffers and customers receive poor service. If they have a quarrel or if they break up, they could be even more distracted at work. However, policies preventing employees from fraternizing with coworkers may not be legal depending on the circumstances. Policies that ban all fraternizing without specifying romantic relationships can be in violation of labor protections under the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right of employees to meet and organize for mutual support. Policies that ban romantic relationships specifically can violate worker’s privacy rights in some states.
Legal protections for privacy rights vary from one state to another. For example, the California state constitution protects privacy rights at work as well as outside it. In California, a policy requiring employees to disclose romantic relationships with coworkers would be in violation of the law. Policies forbidding employees from dating each other can also be prohibited by law in some states. For example, Colorado law does not allow employers to fire employees for any legal off-duty behaviors. If two coworkers at an office started dating outside of work but kept the relationship strictly private, the company could neither force them to reveal it nor take any action against them for it.
According to an article on fraternization policies by law firm Dinsmore and Shohl, the safest course of action for any company is to write clear and specific policies and then enforce them fairly and consistently. For instance, if the company wants to prohibit romantic or sexual relationships between supervisors and direct subordinates the policy should specify that in clear language. If the company wants to make sure dating relationships between coworkers don’t cause distraction at work, the policy should specifically address the issue of distraction rather than trying to ban behavior outside of work. Once the company has a policy, it must enforce the policy consistently. An employee fired for breaking a policy that was never enforced before could have grounds to claim discrimination.
Reference: Scott Thompson, Chron