Corner Office No Place for Workplace Romance: The Legal Risk of Sexual Favoritism

November 29, 2007

The CEO of the American Red Cross resigned after disclosure of a relationship with an employee.  The Red Cross Board of Governors stated that his resignation was requested for using “poor judgment” that “diminished his ability to lead the organization in the future”.   It amazes me that this type of leadership gaff can be repeated across so many organizations.

Strictly speaking, “sexual favoritism” is not unlawful sex discrimination so long as the relationship is consensual and does not discriminate against other men and women in the workplace. The EEOC’s Guidance on Employer Liability for Sexual Favoritism which was last updated in 1999 states as follows:

It is the Commission’s position that Title VII does not prohibit isolated instances of preferential treatment based upon consensual romantic relationships. An isolated instance of favoritism toward a "paramour" (or a spouse, or a friend) may be unfair, but it does not discriminate against women or men in violation of Title VII, since both are disadvantaged for reasons other than their genders.

Strictly speaking, sexual favoritism by a high level executive is an employee relations problem and an unacceptable legal risk. Organizations cannot rely on the relationship remaining consensual and hazard the legal and public relations consequences.

Nonetheless, office romance is more prevalent than I ever appreciated until I researched a prior post on Fishing off the Company Dock: A Legal Perspective. Here are some of the proactive steps an employer can take to anticipate and manage the situation:

Implement a Strong Policy against Sexual and other Harassment

The EEOC has issued extensive guidance on sexual harassment policies and there ability to reduce an employer’s liability for harassment.   One of the most critical components of such a policy is an effective complaint procedure to redress claims of harassment. Obviously, the avenue for making a complaint cannot be exclusively with a supervisor.

Develop a Policy on Office Romance without calling it "Fraternization"

According to Office Politics, thirty-five percent of companies have no formal workplace romance policy. Develop a policy, but avoid overly broad definitions and in particular the word "fraternize’ which was the court’s primary objection in the in Guardsmark case.

Train Supervisors

Supervisory training on sexual harassment can demonstrate a company’s good faith attempts to comply with the law. Such training should explain the types of conduct that violate the employer’s anti-harassment policy; the seriousness of the policy; the responsibilities of supervisors and managers when they learn of alleged harassment; and the prohibition against retaliation.

Proactively Evaluate and Confront Situations

Most employers are content to sit passively and tolerate the employee relations fall out of an office romance. Many will not act unless it "becomes a disruption". Consider some proactive steps. If the romance is between co-workers, make sure they understand that it cannot impact productivity. If it is between a supervisor and subordinate, evaluate whether there should be changes in the reporting structure. Don’t automatically transfer or reassign the female in the relationship or you will risk a discrimination claim.