Monday, September 26, 2022

Workplace romance vs. workplace harassment

The Boston Celtics have suspended their head coach, Ime Udoka, for the entire 2022-23 season.

His offense — it was initially reported that he had violated the team’s policies by engaging in a consensual intimate relationship with a female staff member. 

This punishment seemed … harsh. A year for a consensual relationship? If you don’t want your head coach dating staff, why not just direct him to end the affair with a stern warning not to let it happen again, instead of a year-long suspension? In fact, it seemed so harsh that I knew that there had to be more to this story. 

And indeed, there was. Per ESPN, the decision came after a months’ long investigation by an independent law firm which uncovered multiple violations of team policies. There are no details as to what those violation are, but it certainly must be more than just the relationship itself.

The reality is that there isn’t anything inherently illegal about a boss dating an employee.

The question is one of risk — how much risk you, as an employer, want to assume in the event a relationships sours, or other employees feels shunned or mistreated as a result. 

Your options as an employer:

💚 Ban them outright?

💚 Ban them only between a manager/supervisor and his/her subordinate?

💚 Permit them with a signed agreement (the “love contract”)?

💚 Do nothing and permit them across the board?

I’m not saying these relationships should never happen; it just means that employers need to understand that permitting these workplace romances amplifies the risk of claims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and otherwise, all of which becomes heightened when the parties involved are a boss/manager/supervisor and a subordinate.

In the case of direct reports, the best and recommended practice is to avoid any romantic relationships. While they aren’t inherently illegal, I’ve just seen many too many examples of what can go wrong when those relationships end (as most usually do).

Otherwise, I’m not here to tell you that you should forbid employees from dating each other. Far from it. The heart is going to go where the heart wants to go. In other words, if your employees want to date, they will — with or without a policy forbidding their relationships and dalliances. 

Instead, look at workplace romances as an opportunity to educate your employees about the ins and outs of your harassment, discrimination, and retaliation policies. Train your employees about what is and is not appropriate (and inappropriate) workplace conduct between the sexes. 

Focusing on conduct (and misconduct) instead of relationships will provide your employees the necessary tools to avoid the types of problems that can arise, and which, in turn, will help your organization avoid the litigation that those problems often cause.