Employee Relationships and Privacy Rights - Tilson


Employee Relationships and Privacy Rights

Regulations & Compliance, Strategy & Planning | February 2022

Employee relationships present serious risks in the workplace, causing many organizations to implement no-dating policies as a way of curbing conflicts before they arise. While this may reduce the risk of a nasty break-up scene in the lunch room, there are also arguments suggesting that these policies violate the privacy rights of the employees.

With more singles than ever in the workforce putting in long hours, relationships are bound to be an issue. However, dangers present themselves when coworkers engage in relationships. The most compelling of those is the risk of a sexual harassment claim by one party or another. These claims are especially prevalent when the relationship includes a subordinate and someone in a managerial position. If the relationship ends, the line between a good partnership and harassment may become thin as there are many emotions and possibly irrational behaviors on the part of one or both parties in a breakup.

To tackle this issue, employers may elect to devise an employee relationships or dating policy for their employees. Consider the following suggestions when enacting your policy:

  • Establish the guidelines on paper in an employee handbook or memo distributed throughout the company.
  • Specify your preference for dating: not tolerated at all, not tolerated among subordinates and managers, or do not have a preference.
  • If your company will allow subordinates and managers to date, consider asking them to sign a contract outlining that the relationship is consensual. This will protect against future sexual harassment claims.
  • Ask employees to be professional during the relationship and if the relationship ends.
  • Ask that other employees refrain from gossip as a way of respecting the daters’ privacy and maintaining a professional environment.
  • Request that dating employees be discreet and maintain a sense of professionalism in the workplace. Make clear that the relationship must not interfere with the employees’ duties and responsibilities.

In addition to intra-office romance, there are also privacy concerns with regard to off-duty behavior and the employer’s right to interfere. Employers must exercise caution when trying to regulate their employees’ actions outside of work when it comes to relationships, marital status and lifestyle choices. Simply because the employer thinks something is immoral or indecent does not mean that the employee is not allowed to engage in that conduct while not on company time.

Furthermore, it may be illegal to discriminate and terminate someone’s employment based on certain preferences or behaviors. Particularly if these choices do not impact the employee’s work performance; they are legally none of the employer’s concern.

Although drafting a policy regarding employee relationships/dating is a wise decision, regulating employee conduct outside of work can be risky. In fact, the further removed the conduct is from work, the less likely that regulations and policies would be permitted in a court of law. Beyond that, these regulations infringe both on the employee’s right to privacy as well as anti-discrimination laws. You should consider having legal counsel review any such policy you draft before implementing it in your workplace.

This blog is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as professional advice

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