A reader writes:
In our organization of 25 employees, there are two sets of couples. Having couples on such a small staff is really counterproductive. The couples are always looking out for each other by way of trying to ensure they don’t have to take on extra work and having a counterproductive attitude to other staff.
Could our organization adopt a “no relationship” policy and therefore require one person from each couple to leave the organization? All the employees and relationships have been in place for well over 10 years.
I absolutely understand why you don’t want couples on a small staff. Totally aside from the problems you mentioned, there are also legitimate concerns about whether they’ll be able to work on projects together professionally, whether they’ll act in a way that makes others uncomfortable, whether they’ll cause drama or tension if you have a fight or break up, and whether they’ll end up fighting the other person’s battles for them. (For example, what happens if one half of a couple gets fired or treated in a way they feel is unfair? Does that really not impact the morale and working relationships of the other person?)
However, while technically you could implement a “no dating” policy and tell people that they need to pick their job or their significant other, that would be a pretty crappy thing to do to couples who have been together for 10 years when you didn’t say anything at the outset. It’s pretty likely that your staff would hate you for it.
Or you just could have a no-dating policy going forward (although good luck with that — it usually just drives dating underground and tends to be seen by people as a major over-reach from the employer).
But your better bet is to manage in this situation, which means addressing it forthrightly when someone in a couple is behaving in a disruptive manner, like the things you described. Make it clear that that behavior isn’t okay, and if it continues, impose consequences — one of which could certainly be managing them out of the organization if you feel it rises to that level.
There’s one exception to this: You absolutely need a policy saying that people can’t manage someone they’re romantically involved with, or even be in their reporting line (so, for example, your communications director can’t date the communications assistant, even though the assistant reports to the deputy communications director, because the director manages the assistant’s manager).
Allowing people to date subordinates causes Bad Things. At best, it creates the appearance (even if not the reality) of bias and special treatment, and it can also mean that the subordinate’s performance isn’t assessed appropriately and the person isn’t given adequate feedback, and it can open your company to charges of harassment down the road (“I wanted to break up with him, but he implied it would affect my standing at work”). Most companies have a no-dating subordinates policy, and you should have one too.
If any of the current relationships on your staff would violate that policy, you can and should intervene in that now. That means that you’d need to figure out if any of those reporting relationships can be changed — which might be hard or impossible in such a small organization — and if they can’t, then you need to give some reasonable period of time for one or both people in the couple to find other work. Since you’ve let this go on for 10 years, you’d need to give them that transition time in order to be fair.
But aside from that, the answer — as it so often is — is to manage. When someone’s behaving inappropriately or in a way that’s harmful to your organization, address those specific behaviors (i.e., the “trying to ensure they don’t have to take on extra work and having a counterproductive attitude to other staff” part of your letter). That part of it is inarguably your business, and you have both the standing and the obligation to address it.
*While it’s generally legal in the U.S. to prohibit dating between coworkers or require one of the parties to move on if a relationship forms, there are a few state exceptions, such as in California, where courts have ruled that the state constitution provides broader privacy protection in employment matters). So you’ll want to check your state law.