Workplace romance is an inevitable issue that comes up in any work environment, and it’s important for HR managers and employees to know and understand the employers’ policies and laws regulating this delicate topic.
When relationships with coworkers don’t work out, both employers and employees may face problems that include potential sexual harassment or discrimination claims, perceived favoritism by other employees or potential conflict of interests.
Some surveys in the past have shown that a great majority of companies and employers in Florida do not have a defined policy to address office romances, although the number of organizations that have taken steps towards regulating this issue doubled in the last decade. But, when an employer does have an established policy, it tends to discourage employees from dating, rather than to strictly forbid it.
Fraternization and Other Workplace Policies
Fraternization is defined as an inter-employee relationship that differs from normal coworkers interactions, usually including romantic or sexual involvement.
Fraternization policy (also referred to as dating policy or non-fraternization policy) is a form of a team-norm, a set of guidelines that employers establish as a way to ensure that employees understand work norms and office behavior rules as well as boundaries regarding romantic relationships and dating with colleagues.
Workplace policies, in general, may help prevent different types of discrimination or affect workers ability to bring a claim to court by anticipating various obligations, for example, to put the employer on notice, or following certain procedures before making a court claim. These include, but are not limited to, harassment policies, non-disparagement or confidentiality clauses, non compete clauses, social-media, and internet usage policies.
Employees are entitled to be timely and elaborately informed about workplace norms.
Is Regulating the Workplace Romance Legal?
Maintaining a dating policy is legal, but it has boundaries. Since more and more employers seek to limit their liability, that can result from disintegrated personal relationships in the workplace, by embracing fraternization policies, certain questions arise.
A federal decision in the case of Guardsmark, LLC vs. National Labor Relations Board held that a blanket fraternization policy implicitly precluded employees from engaging in union or concerted activity and, as such, was unenforceable and in violation of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
Another question discussed in front of the U.S. Federal court is how policies reflect on employees rights to private life? In the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Lawrence vs. Texas (539 U.S. 558 (2003)), Justice Anthony Kennedy forcefully declared that “the right of intimate association includes a right of consenting adults to engage in private sexual relationships.“
This right, as he noted, is among the essential liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In a nutshell, as long as the policy in place does not interfere with exercising the basic labor rights, it is binding for employees.
Can a Workplace Relationship Be Fair Grounds for a Dismissal from Work?
Also, a very significant issue and a frequently asked question is – can a consensual long-term relationship between coworkers justify termination for cause without notice? A clear and unequivocal answer to this question is „sometimes.”
Everyone is entitled to privacy and having a relationship, so a relationship with a colleague itself could not add up to a justified cause for dismissal from work. On the other hand, if a workplace romance creates a hostile environment, favoritism or discrimination, termination may be fair.
If you have any concerns regarding any of the aforementioned issues, it’s strongly recommended to always consult a skilled employment attorney in your area.
Law offices of Eddy Marban have more than 30 years of experience in litigating workplace-related cases in Florida State trial and appellate Courts. We encourage you to schedule a free consultation and visit us in our offices in Miami and Coral Gables, where we will asses the merits of your claim.