With the recent news of the firing of McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook for a consensual relationship with a subordinate, workplace romance is back in the headlines. As a result, the debate over the propriety of office trysts, particularly those involving bosses and employees, has renewed. In the #MeToo era, many employers have rekindled employer dating policies in an attempt to prevent issues at work.
In the past, office romances were strongly discouraged, and many employers had policies in place prohibiting office romances. However, over much of the past few decades, the restrictions on workplace relationships began to fade and colleagues dating became more accepted. After the heightened awareness of workplace impropriety in the wake of the #MeToo movement, many employers are reinstating policies that restrict consensual workplace relationships. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, about 50% of U.S. employers have these policies, up from 25% in 2005.
McDonald’s is one such company that has a policy which prohibits employees from “dating or having a sexual relationship” with direct or indirect reports. When viewing Easterbrook’s relationship through the lens of the company policy, it is clear there was a violation. There is one big question that comes as a result of manager-subordinate relationships – is the relationship truly consensual?
When an employee is pursued romantically by a supervisor or senior executive, it creates an asymmetric power dynamic. The superior has a great deal of control over the subordinate’s employment, potentially including scheduling, pay/salary, and even promotion. Is an employee willing to turn down a boss’ advances when the employee knows that person has great influence over their career? The answer to that question is challenging at best. Many experts argue that due to the power dynamic, workplace relationships between superiors and subordinates can never be truly consensual.
Many employers have decided that the risks office romances bring far outweigh any benefit. The downside of workplace relationships includes perceived favoritism, potential sexual harassment claims, and even retaliation claims if a relationship sours. As such, these organizations have created anti-romance policies which prohibit managers and their subordinates from engaging in consensual workplace relationships.
Because workplace relationships are more common, employers need to have policies and procedures in place to mitigate risks that arise from these relationships. In particular, it may be prudent for an organization to consider prohibiting relationships between a manager and subordinate. These policies, and the consequences for violations, need to be communicated to all managers and employees.