Most companies don't have boss/subordinate dating policies
Two exclusive surveys show that HR execs aren't doing what it takes to ensure that boss/subordinate dating doesn't result in costly, unnecessary sexual harassment lawsuits.
One survey showed that 56% of HR executives feel that under no circumstances should a boss ever date a direct report. But another survey showed that only one-third of companies have a policy to protect themselves from boss/subordinate liaisons. And less than one in five actually forbid them outright.
Sounds like a lot of HR execs take a hard line against bosses who date subordinates but don’t lock in policies to protect their companies. Let’s look at the surveys:
Survey #1: What’s your company’s policy regarding boss/subordinate dating?
- We have no policy – 66%
- We strictly forbid it in most or all circumstances – 19%
- We tolerate it but immediately transfer the subordinate to a new boss – 7%
- We tolerate it but insist that both parties sign a disclosure statement – 6%
Survey #2: How do you (HR executives) feel about boss/subordinate dating?
- Under no circumstances should a boss even consider dating a subordinate – 56%
- It's acceptable as long as both parties disclose the relationship and sign the company's sexual harassment policy – 10%
- If it happens, so be it, but the subordinate needs to be assigned a new boss – 33%
Rather than dwell on the contradictions, let’s talk about the complexities of boss/subordinate dating. No one would ever deny how dangerous it can be. Employees who date bosses immediately fall into a "protected class," which means that any adverse action taken against them provides traction for a lawsuit. The most common accusation you hear in court is something like, "I dumped him, so he retaliated against me by firing me," or "he denied me a promotion," or "he cut back my overtime." We've seen plenty of other cases where a spurned boss persists and ends up provoking a sexual harassment lawsuit. It's understandable that HR people want to forbid the practice.
Is it really smart to ban boss/subordinate dating? No, in fact it’s risky. Romantic attraction is a powerful force that trumps good judgment in the best of us; if you ban boss/subordinate dating, most people will simply hide the relationship. You could argue that your exposure to lawsuits is even greater if the relationship is clandestine.
So, many employers encourage people to publicly disclose the relationship. And they ask both parties to sign a “consensual dating policy,” which is full of reminders about the dangers of sexual harassment, retaliation, conflicts of interest and so on. It’s also a good idea to ask both parties to re-read and re-sign the sexual harassment policy at the same time.
Many people ridicule these policies, particularly the clause asking the parties to tip off HR when the relationship ends (“Can you imagine anybody actually doing that?”). We think critics are missing the point. Having a consensual dating policy (or a “dating/fraternization policy,” as some call it) and making people sign it sends a strong message to the courts, should you ever get sued. And it sends a reminder to the two lovebirds, who believe their love will never end and are blind to the problems their relationship might cause in the workplace. A review of the policy documents, plus a friendly chat with HR about the perils of boss/subordinate dating, could significantly reduce your risk of getting sued.
The safest solution
The mandatory transfer policy makes a lot of sense (despite the fact that only 7% in our survey have implemented it). It's anchored by two assumptions:
- That you can't fight human nature. If two people who work closely eight hours a day five days a week start having feelings for one another, there's nothing you can do to stop it.
- That by quickly undoing the boss/subordinate reporting structure, the boss is no longer in a position to take an "adverse action" against the employee, so you've significantly reduced your risk. (Note: You have not, however, eliminated it. A jilted manager might still be in a position to influence the boss of a former paramour (e.g., "Don't promote her; she's a loser"), which means you could still get sued. In a recent case, Horne v. Turner Construction, a woman's former supervisor made a negative comment to her new boss that led to a gender bias lawsuit.)