Workplace romance more tricky in #MeToo era

City talk | Charlotte Plantive 11 Nov 2019

Workplace romances are fairly common, but they are becoming more regulated in the United States amid the #MeToo movement.

American companies, particularly the larger ones, have had codes of conduct for employees for years, and more firms have been adopting them recently.

At McDonald's, for example, "employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other are prohibited from dating or having a sexual relationship."

As McDonald's chief executive, Steve Easterbrook was in charge of enforcing what were known as the "Standards of Business Conduct" at the fast-food giant.

But he fell foul of those rules and was forced out days ago for demonstrating "poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee."

Easterbrook is just the latest in a long line of top executives who have resigned or been dismissed for violating company guidelines surrounding relationships.

Brian Dunn quit as the CEO of consumer electronics chain Best Buy in 2012, following the revelation of his "close personal relationship" with a female subordinate.

Brian Krzanich, chief executive of semiconductor giant Intel, stepped down last year for violating the company's non-fraternization policy.

The list goes on - and it is not limited to corporate boardrooms or men.

Katie Hill, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from California, has just resigned after acknowledging she had a relationship with a staffer on her election campaign team.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 42 percent of US workers in 2013 were employed by companies that had written or verbal policies in place regarding workplace romances.

The goal of such policies is not only to prevent sexual harassment but also favoritism or conflicts of interest.

Julie Moore, an employment lawyer, says the rules have been applied more scrupulously since the #MeToo movement spawned by the alleged serial sexual harassment and assault of actresses by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

"The #MeToo movement has certainly furthered scrutiny of relationships in the workplace," Moore says.

"Whether it's a consensual, personal romantic relationship or otherwise, there could be a breeding ground for sexual harassment."

This comes into play particularly when the relationship involves a supervisor and a subordinate.

"The CEO is the most powerful person in the organization," Moore says.

"When there is power, can someone really consent to a relationship? Because of the power disparity, you are going to look at whether there was true consent. If not, a subordinate could easily say at some point that it was a violation of sexual harassment policy."

Johnny Taylor, president of the Society for Human Resource Management, says there will always be workplace romances.

According to a poll from SHRM, one out of three American adults is currently in a workplace romance or has been involved in one.

"Because so much of our waking time is spent at work, it's no surprise romances develop in the workplace," Taylor says.

"It makes little sense to forbid them. Instead, employees should be encouraged to disclose relationships.

"This is the most effective way to limit the potential for favoritism, retaliation and sexual harassment claims."


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