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Does your business have an “anti-fraternization” policy?

October 18, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Michael J. Burns

As part of the fallout from the sex scandal involving Detroit Police Chief Godbee, the city announced this week that Mayor Dave Bing has directed the Detroit police administration to review and communicate to staff the department’s anti-fraternization policy.

Anti-fraternization policies either outright prohibit or attempt to curtail dating relationships between co-workers, particularly between supervisors and subordinates. Other, less draconian, “relationship or romance” policies set out to communicate rules and concerns surrounding workplace dating.

Anti-fraternization policies are among those that meet with ambivalence from both management and employee. Who wants to get involved with an employee’s personal life? Besides, with work-life balance a real issue in today’s world, many time-challenged workers’ social lives exist substantially in the workplace.

Career Builder reports that 38 percent of respondents to its 2012 annual office romance survey indicated they have dated a co-worker at least once in their career. One-third of these resulted in marriage; 28 percent of people who dated co-workers said they had a relationship with someone at a higher level in the company, including the boss.

The major risks of workplace dating are these:

  • Conflict of interest if an employee who is in a relationship gets special treatment or favors
  • Increased security risk, where the employees in a relationship might not report rule breaches of their partners and may even collude with them
  • Sexual harassment if the relationship ends badly and the subordinate in the relationship alleges coercion or some other adverse action

Minor conflicts that could become major problems include these:

  • Disciplinary conflicts if a supervisor of an employee is confronted with disciplining the girlfriend or boyfriend of the boss
  • Time off conflicts when both parties in a relationship want to take the same time off

(Note that these same problems can arise when relatives work for the same employer. Have you checked your Nepotism policy lately?)

What is the employer to do?

At minimum, every employer should have a “Sexual and Other Forms of Harassment” policy in place, with all the required and necessary elements in it. But what about an Anti-fraternization or “Romance” policy?

Anti-fraternization policies do not appear to be universal at this time—at least not yet. But those that do exist usually do the following:

  • Seek to control peer relationships by requesting the involved parties to disclose their relationship to management
  • Discourage or even prohibit supervisor-subordinate relationships.

A no-tolerance policy on dating needs to be thought out very carefully, however. It is a leadership issue, and the very real risk is that the employer will not exercise leadership and enforce it consistently. The employer must be determined to enforce it across the board and even discipline those who are in a position to enforce it but fail to do so. Considering that it was the Chief of Police himself who allegedly participated in an illicit relationship with a subordinate, perhaps the culture within the offices at the Detroit Police Headquarters lacked basic leadership and professional discipline from the top

The more common, and perhaps most middle-of-the-road, approach to this thorny issue is a good sexual harassment policy that is actively administered and enforced. Combine it with setting and communicating a  good set of performance expectations and guidelines, and the employer should be able to address and properly respond to potential problems without banning romantic relationships altogether.

An employer’s first line of defense against problems associated with employee relationships and sexual (and other forms of) harassment is to make sure managers understand what is expected of them and then behaving accordingly. That includes, as a basic duty and responsibility, avoiding any behaviors that could lead to conflicts of interest and discrimination. It also means immediately addressing those situations that present a potential violation of the rules and good common sense.

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