Case study: fraternization

A doctor had an intimate relationship with an employee. When the doctor ended the relationship, it created bitterness and resentment.

A doctor had an intimate relationship with an employee. When the doctor ended the relationship, it created bitterness and resentment. The employee eventually resigned and filed a complaint, alleging she had to quit because of sexual harassment, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. Even though the doctor contended the relationship had been consensual, the claim was settled out of court.

Considerations

In a small workplace environment where people spend a lot of time together, friendships may turn into intimate personal relationships. Two people may enter into a consensual relationship with the best of intentions ... and then it may not work.

When this happens - especially when employers are involved - they often wind up in court. In addition, personal relationships in the workplace can have an adverse effect on the morale and productivity of other employees.

Co-workers often resent what they perceive to be preferential treatment or having to make up the work of the involved co-worker. Staff members may also lose respect for employers who allow or participate in such relationships. More serious ramifications include claims of favoritism, discrimination, retaliation, and sexual harassment.

In today’s workplace, harassment - and particularly sexual harassment-related issues - can cross boundaries between two people of the same gender, opposite gender, a third-party, supplier, and even patients. Statistically, women bring such charges against men employers or co-workers about 85 percent of the time.

The unpleasantness starts when one of the parties decides to end the relationship and the rejected person alleges she or he was pressured into the relationship, and therefore was sexually harassed. Allegations can include having to work in a “hostile and intimidating work environment,” or, in the case of a supervisory relationship, “quid pro quo” harassment. The employee who alleges harassment often states the relationship was “unwelcome” and based on concern that his or her job might be in jeopardy if he or she did not cooperate.

Courts have ruled that, even when two people initially enter into a mutually agreeable relationship, quid pro quo harassment still can exist if the employee attempts to end the relationship and then suffers an adverse employment action such as a demotion or termination.

Even in the best of circumstances - where a personal relationship results in marriage and the employee/spouse remains on the job, and takes on a more responsible role - staff turnover is likely.

Solution

Short of adopting and enforcing a no-tolerance policy regarding workplace romances (which in and of itself could violate an individual’s personal rights), no solutions guarantee protection when it comes to personal relationships - especially when the relationship is between the employer and an employee.

To afford some degree of protection, we recommend you have a written policy to discourage such romantic relationships and prohibit personal relationships between employer and managers and subordinates and employees. Such a policy is defensible when the employer has a valid work-related reason.

If you allow relationships to exist, consider having the parties sign an agreement documenting the relationship is truly consensual. Ideally, the agreement would include a waiver releasing the employer (assuming the employer is not one of the parties in the relationship) from any claims of discrimination or harassment arising out of the relationship.

As we have seen, when it is the employer who enters into a personal relationship with an employee, a break-up of the relationship can have damaging results in terms of legal and financial complications. In such a situation, a written agreement, similar to the one described above, is advisable. Such agreements sometimes include a clause that says if either party ends the relationship, then the employee will voluntarily terminate employment. However, this caveat might be perceived as an infringement on personal rights or the right to work under state law.

Be careful, and if job performance-related issues exist, focus on them and not on the relationship. By focusing on the issues, you reduce the risks of an employee filing charges of discrimination, a hostile work environment, and/or retaliation.

As natural and appropriate as romantic relationships in the workplace may seem, such relationships can easily result in serious legal and financial complications, as the doctor in this case discovered. Employers must protect themselves from this possibility by following the steps outlined in this article.

Bent Ericksen is the founder and Tim Twigg is the president of Bent Ericksen and Associates. For over 25 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resources and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with the ever-changing and complex labor laws. Both authors are members of the Academy of Dental Management Consultants. To receive a complimentary copy of the company’s quarterly newsletter or to learn more, contact them at (800) 679-2760 or at www.bentericksen.com.

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