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Can an Employer Force Co-Workers Who Get Married to Resign?

April 11, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner AdvanceHR

On TV shows like “The Office,” employers monitor the dating habits of employees. In real life, employers may impose fraternization rules if they have legitimate business reasons for doing so or they want to thwart sexual harassment allegations. For instance, a company might ban romances between managers and subordinates or flat-out prohibit all workers from dating each other.

The Company’s Written Policy

Court documents show that Fred’s Inc. had the following written non-fraternization policy. Dollie Ayers-Jennings signed a document acknowledging that she read and understood it:

“Single management employees are not to date anyone they may directly or indirectly supervise.  Because of the possible distractions at work, single employees are discouraged, but not prohibited, from dating other single Fred’s, Inc. employees.  Close relatives, from immediate family through first cousins, are not to be assigned to the same department, nor are management employees to supervise close relatives. Exceptions may be approved by the President.”

But suppose that two co-workers become romantically involved anyway and eventually get married. If the marriage violates company policy, can the employer require at least one of the spouses to resign? That was the issue presented in a recent case decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Facts of the case: Dollie Ayers worked for Fred’s, Inc., a discount retailer, for approximately 28 years. In 2006, she began dating Willie Jennings, an area manager in the Memphis, Tenn., warehouse where she worked. Jennings wasn’t her direct supervisor, but there were times when she might be subject to his supervision.

Ayers and Jennings were married in 2007. When they returned to work from their honeymoon, they were informed that one of them would have to resign because company policy prohibited any employee from working either directly or indirectly under his or her spouse. Because her compensation was significantly less than her husband’s, Dollie Ayers-Jennings reluctantly resigned from her job.

According to court documents, prior to their wedding, “both Jennings and Ayers mentioned their wedding plans to their supervisors, none of whom cautioned them about the impact of their marriage on their employment status.”

Then, Ayers-Jennings initiated a lawsuit against Fred’s, alleging that the termination of her employment was racially motivated. An African-American, Ayers-Jennings argued that three other co-worker couples were allowed to remain employed at the company after getting married. All of the other parties were Caucasian. But the attorneys for Fred’s argued that the other couples were not in comparable situations. In no case did any of the employees work in the same division as their spouse. Nor did one spouse supervise, or be in position to potentially supervise, his or her spouse.

The district court sided with the employer. It determined that there was no racial discrimination, and Ayers-Jennings “failed to show that nonprotected, similarly situated employees were treated more favorably than she was.” The company’s written policy (see right-hand box) was specific and there were no open jobs that either spouse could transfer to.

The Court was sympathetic to Ayers-Jennings stating that “no reasonable person would disagree that plaintiff deserved better.” As a “good, loyal employee of some 28 years, she “was given 24 hours to decide whether she or her husband would resign — not because of “misconduct” of any kind — but because of a blessed event: their matrimonial union.” However, the court added that while it “failed to understand such inflexible adherence to company policy, the civil rights laws do not give the courts license to micromanage the workplace in the absence of evidence of unlawful discrimination.”

So while the termination was abrupt and resulted in an unfortunate hardship, the company could request the resignation. (Ayers-Jennings, 6th Cir. Ct. App., No. 10-6228, CA-6, 2/13/12)

Office Romance Considerations

Employers may reduce their liability by instituting a specific policy that addresses company romances. Here are a few considerations:

Relationships between supervisors and subordinates could result in sexual harassment claims. As a result, many employers require its supervisors to notify the organization in writing about such relationships.

Require professional behavior at all times. Employees who are dating co-workers should observe proper decorum in the office. Be specific that public displays of affection won’t be tolerated.

Ask your attorney if dating employees should sign agreements stating that their relationships are consensual in nature. It may sound heavy-handed, but this could ward off charges if the romance turns sour later on. Both parties in a relationship should agree to the “contract” and fully understand it.

Provide the specifics of what will happen if the policy is violated. If the company is large enough, an employer might be able to provide for a transfer to another division. When a resignation is required, define the procedures.

Incorporate these policies into the company manual and bring the human resources department up-to-speed. Your attorney and HR advisers can provide guidance in this area.

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