Should Extramarital Affairs be handled differently from Other Workplace Romances?

Apparently workplace romances have tumbled according to a Valentine’s Day survey conducted by CareerBuilder. Nearly 25 percent of those who reported a workplace romance claimed that their involvement was with a married co-worker. Working in close proximity to others, chemistry will happen. But do small businesses and employers handle romance between married employees differently than a workplace romance between two single people? Does creating a policy hurt or help a small business? Lastly, is marital status a protected class under the EEOC?

Potential Claims Abound when there is Romance in the Workplace         

Whether two people involved in a workplace romance are married or not, it has definite implications within their work environment. Not only can it damage morale, it can decrease workplace productivity, especially if public displays of affection or flirting make other employees uncomfortable. Other unfavorable situations include favoritism by a supervisor to a subordinate because they are dating or the romance results in a bad breakup where employees feel they must take sides. Worst case scenarios are when office affairs result in sexual harassment claims because the relationship ends or one party feels jilted. No employer or small business wants a workplace romance to escalate into a claim.

The Challenges of a No Fraternization Policy

Often employers and small businesses will consider prohibiting romantic relationships on the job. But that too, comes with its own set of complications. A policy can either have employees lying in the event they are confronted about the situation. In reality, can you really keep two people apart if they want to be together? However, if public affection is making other employees uncomfortable, it may help small business owners to watch for subtle behavioral changes among its staff and definitely between the two people involved. But there is a word of caution here. Small business owners must have evidence or proof about the affair before bringing it to the attention of the two people involved, because it is certain to come across as accusatory without it.

If addressing the issue with the parties involved seems the best course of action, place an emphasis on the impact it has on the business itself, from the customers and clients to the employees they work with everyday. If there is a ‘no romantic relationship policy’ in place makes sure it is followed at every work location and ensure that it does not invade employees’ privacy.

Are There Protections for Marital Status?

While there is no law applicable to most small businesses that prevents discrimination based on marital status, firing someone for having a workplace extramarital affair may expose a small business to a discrimination claim. For instance, if a small business owner treats two single employees who are having a relationship differently than two married employees having an affair they could potentially be putting themselves at risk for a claim based on marital-status discrimination.

So, how should small businesses protect themselves?

  1. Think about a No Fraternization policy that clearly states the expectation of acceptable behavior as an employee. Define which relationships are not tolerated by specifically prohibiting managers from dating subordinates. Policies can also be written to state that all employees are to behave professionally at all times when on the premises. Building expectations of how you would like your employees to behave can reduce PDA, uncomfortable moments for other employees and possible sexual harassment claims.
  2. Define the penalties clearly. If the policy is violated, employees can expect demotion, transfer or termination.
  3. Encourage open communications with employees to talk about potential romantic relationships. If you show a willingness to work with a couple, they may be more inclined to disclose their involvement and handle it in a professional manner.
  4. Establish a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and clearly state the consequences of such behavior. Provide training to supervisors, managers and employees.
  5. Train managers and supervisors to notice signs of an office romance gone off the rails
    (increased friction or unprofessional displays of affection or anger) which may be having a negative impact.
  6. Be sure to explain that as a small business owner your number one concern is workplace performance and not to invade their privacy.
  7. Handle a potential situation immediately. Talk to the couple and explain about the rumors, ask if they’re true and convey the consequences of their behavior, such as possible termination or a transfer. Make note of the conversation in their personnel file.
  8. Consider separating the couple. Small businesses separating two employees especially if no other location exists can be difficult, however consider scheduling the employees for different shifts.

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