A reader writes:
My company’s handbook says that if employees have a relationship, we have 3 months to report it and then one of us would have to find a new job.
I carpool with a male coworker, and he and I have become friends. He would like to hang out and possibly go to the movies and such things together. Two of my coworkers have warned me to be careful, as there have just been rumors of people in the past possibly having relations and the woman was always the one to be terminated.
Can a company honestly terminate you just for reasonable suspicion or do they need proof? Also, what would qualify as reasonable suspicion if they are allowed to do that?
It is indeed legal to prohibit dating between coworkers (with a few exceptions, such as in California, where courts have ruled that the state constitution provides broader privacy protection in employment matters). And you can indeed have a policy that requires one of the parties to move on if a relationship happens.
What’s not legal, though, is to always have women be the ones who have to leave. If indeed that’s how your company does it, that’s sex discrimination and is illegal. (Or at least it’s illegal if your company is big enough to be covered by federal discrimination statutes — meaning that it has 15 or more employees.)
As for the question of whether they need reasonable suspicion, employers don’t generally need “proof” before taking disciplinary action against employees in any matter, but because the issue of romantic relations is a sticky one, I turned to employment attorney Bryan Cavanaugh to weigh in. He says: “As for reasonable suspicion, the law does not impose any sort of standard that the employer must meet before taking action. That is to say, the employer does not need admissions from the employees, or explicit emails, or video evidence. The employer can act on its suspicions and circumstantial evidence.”
This is basically the same as if your employer suspected you of violating any other policy (or even doing something they didn’t like, whether prohibited by a policy or not): If, for instance, your employer suspected you of being rude to clients or watching too much YouTube at your desk, they wouldn’t need to present you with evidence. They could simply take action.
In this case, though, Bryan goes on to say that they’d still be wise to only act if they have solid evidence: “Acting on flimsy suspicions would only serve to alienate employees, lower morale because they fear ‘big brother’ is prying into their personal lives, and risk losing good and loyal employees without a good reason. If an employee was let go under this policy without solid evidence and that employee came back and alleged the real reason for the discharge was gender, race, age, etc., then the employer would have a weak defense since its ‘legitimate business reason’ for the termination was so flimsy.”
So there are the facts on legality.
Now let’s talk about the rest of it. From the employer’s side, there are all kinds of reasons not to want couples in your organization — but banning dating upon penalty of firing is a very old-fashioned policy and out of touch with how most modern workplaces operate. Throw in the fact that they have a pattern of firing the women in these couples but not the men, and there’s something pretty disturbing there.
I’d say that you have to decide if you want to work for a company that operates that way. (And that’s not a loaded question; you can certainly decide for plenty of legitimate reasons that you do.) But if you decide that you do, then yeah, I’d avoid hanging out with your male coworker socially, unless you’re prepared to potentially lose your job over it.
(In addition to facing dismissal for fraternizing with a man, you also should not appear unescorted in public or dress immodestly. Oh wait, that’s Downton Abbey.)