can my company prohibit coworkers from dating and fire us if we do?

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.)

{ 82 comments… read them below }

  1. Cat*

    Seriously, that really is the equivalent of firing your scullery maid because she was caught alone behind the stables with a footman. Messed up.

  2. Rob Aught*

    So far I have only seen one company that ever had that policy AND enforced it. Guess what? 100% of the time the woman in the relationship was the one who was let go.

    In fact, this is so rare if you told me this was a certain company located in San Marcos, TX I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I once worked with a husband and wife team and reported to each of them at one point. They had a really good working dynamic and I liked both of them well enough. I’m not sure I’d use them as an example of why it’s a good idea, in general I think married couples in the same department is a bad idea. Still, it can be done.

    1. Sydney Bristow*

      I worked for a company where many people who worked there were married couples. Their marriage had no impact and I didn’t even realize some people were married for a long time. The only time it was awkward was when one of the spouses was laid off and the other one brought her to the company holiday party. She was understandably extremely upset about being laid off but wound up ranting loudly about it while everyone was seated and eating dinner.

    2. Joey*

      There are plenty of employers outside of San Marcos, Tx that do this. I’m not saying its common, just more common than 1 chauvinistic company in a small town outside of Austin.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      I’ve had two sets of bosses who were married (both sets owned their respective businesses–there were no manager/employee dynamics there). They worked fine together, but I don’t think I could do that, ever. I don’t want to date anyone at work for two reasons:

      1. If we break up, the drama/awkward would punch a hole in the sun.

      2. I don’t want him in my face all day, especially if I’m super pissed off at him.

  3. Amanda H*

    “(In addition to facing dismissal for fraternizing with man, you also should not appear unescorted in public or dress immodestly. Oh wait, that’s Downton Abbey.)”

    I know it’s probably a typo (man should be men), but I got a chuckle about how Company X would word this if they were to go blatantly illegal and put it in their handbook or something:
    “Woman, thou shalt not fraternize with man, or else face dismissal.”

  4. Cody C*

    I got fired for this very thing. They kept my girlfriend and let me go. We just celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.

  5. Legal Eagle*

    I’m not a lawyer and I’m not your lawyer.

    Is the company policy (written or unwritten) that the person in the “lower” position gets fired, and it always turns out to be the woman? If so, that could make it harder to prove sex discrimination. (It also raises the question of why the women are lower ranked…)

    1. Jamie*

      There may be other factors at play, rather than keeping women in lower ranks. Maybe men are more likely to date people in a subordinate position than women are? I have nothing to back it up but personal observation but I’ve known quite a few men that dated women in lower positions at work but I can’t recall a woman who dated anyone below her on the org chart.

      I know it happens – but I wonder if it happens less often so to explain why the women are lower ranked (and thus let go) in the relationships? Although if it were me I’d be more concerned that someone in a management position was disregarding policy, regardless of gender.

    2. SCW*

      Though wouldn’t there be a power dynamic that would assume that a person who was a subordinate in power might feel pressure into a relationship or out of a relationship? Personally, I would think the supervisor having a relationship with the subordinate would be the one I’d be holding responsible, regardless of gender.

      1. Cat*

        Yeah, it may make the policy legal, but it definitely isn’t the sign of a well-managed company.

      2. Forrest*

        Higher rank doesn’t automatically mean one’s the other’s supervisor. They could be on the same team but have a Sr/Jr relationship where they report to a third party. Or could be in completely different departments.

      3. glennis*

        There are companies who have a policy against dating in a direct-report relationship – meaning don’t date someone who reports to you. Or even reports to someone who reports to you. And that makes sense, actually.

        But I’ve never known a company that forbids relationships between all or any employees.

      4. Jessa*

        Yes, I would absolutely hold the higher ranked person responsible. I don’t care about interoffice dating, I do however hate the idea of people in the same department, or people who have supervisory rights over others dating.

    3. anon*

      At my last company, a male Sales Manager started dating a female Production Manager, and he was laid off a week after they announced their engagement. But this company used layoffs as a way to fire people and the Sales Manager had made a huge mistake months before all of this happened.

  6. Katie the Fed*

    it’s not an official policy where I am, but when two people in the same department are dating, one or both will be moved to different departments. It’s WAY too disruptive to have them both on the same team – and I’ve seen it go very badly.

    1. anon*

      Totally agreed, and I speak for myself as well. Just like everyone thinks they are a good driver and everyone thinks they are funny, every couple I have worked with thinks they were always professional and that they never distracted their co-workers or made them feel uncomfortable, but every couple I have worked with has distracted me or made me feel uncomfortable at least once.

    2. Lucy*

      Yep, that’s how we operate too. We actually have a lot of people date and then get married, but we’re required to report it if it’s the same department.. then someone will be moved.

  7. J.B.*

    Ahh, paternalism at work, especially on the basis of rumors. I would look elsewhere but nix any socializing with the guy alone until moving on.

    1. kim*

      what if they aren’t in the same department for example one is in the dairy dept and the other one bagging things?

  8. HAnon*

    On a more personal note, really think long and hard whether or not you are willing to to deal with the emotional ramifications of dating this guy…I once dated a guy I worked with (we didn’t have a policy against it) but we kept it very under the radar because we felt like no one else needed to know. It was AWFUL when we broke up, and I had to keep seeing him ALL THE TIME at work. It’s very hard to be professional to someone when you are wishing they would curl up and die, haha! It can work out for some couples, but this is one situation where you want to make sure this is something you REALLY want for the long term, not just a passing fling or a crush. If you’re hopelessly in love and willing to do whatever it takes to be together, then proceed…but exercise caution and wisdom! And keep it professional and on the up-and-up.

    I’ll also add…I currently work for a company that employs a lot of people in their 20’s and several of them have had sexual flings with one another (several have actually occurred in the office, on the premises), and it always gets around through the office grapevine. I’m not a prude (it’s the 20th century, people can do whatever they like in their off-hours time for all I care) but I admit I have less respect for these co-workers for bringing their sex lives to work in such a non-discreet way. It comes across as very unprofessional. You don’t want to put yourself in a position where anyone would question why you got a raise/promotion/etc. and if you got it based on merit or because you have a “special” relationship with someone at the company.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      ON the premises? Sheesh.

      I just assume there are cameras everywhere at work (except the bathroom stall–hopefully). I don’t even pick my nose.

      1. Mike C.*

        Read Kitchen Confidential. You’ll never look at a walk in freezer the same way again.

        1. bearing*

          I think we already had the conversation where it came out that many of us are unable to look at walk-in freezers the same way again, due to unwelcome sexual advances being made to us therein.

      2. HAnon*

        Yep. Supposedly this has happened several times (not the same couple, either. Unrelated instances).

    2. Ruffingit*

      It’s the 21st century :)

      Your story makes me wonder if I’m the only person in the world who makes a clear, blindingly obvious, can be seen from the moon line between my personal life and work. I have a respect for my workplace such that I would never conduct personal activities there such as have sex on the premises. In the same way I don’t want my boss to come to my home, put his feet on the coffee table and start taking client calls. It’s just rude. Have some respect people, geeze!!

    3. FreeThinkerTX*

      Back in the day, I was a datacom plebe at the [then] nation’s largest paging company. We were all (and I mean *EVERY* employee at corporate) called to an emergency meeting by the CEO. He rambled on about “appropriate office behavior” [I was bored and staring out the the 18th floor windows]; but then he said something about supervisors having consensual relation with subordinates on office furniture. WTF??? Totally got *my* (and everyone else’s) attention!!

      It seems there were a couple of managers who were – independently – dating a couple of direct reports, who thought that sex in the office was just the thing to spice up their relationships. I never got a clear answer on how they each got caught. I just tried very hard not to laugh out loud at the meeting.

      1. LPBB*

        I was a long term temp at a pager company. One of the most unprofessional environments, just full of sexual inappropriateness at every turn, I’ve ever worked at. It was almost every week that there was a scandal about inappropriate sexual relations on the property or kerfuffles related to said relations, not to mention just the locker atmosphere of the dept I worked in.

        It was an eye-opener for socially anxious, way way introverted, 22 yo me!

  9. Joey*

    It also seems it would be pretty easy to continue to date without your company finding out. Its pretty tough for a company to have any real knowledge of your personal dating life if you both keep it out of the office. Sure they could ask you, but you could always interpret “relationship” different than they do. But that’s the hard part-keeping it out of the office. Especially if it ends bad.

  10. Katie the Fed*

    Oh and don’t even THINK of doing this stuff if you’re married. We’ve had some interesting issues with married folks running around with each other. The gossip and drama – oy!

  11. Frances*

    My dad’s employer doesn’t prohibit dating but does prohibit married couples (it’s an accounting firm, the thinking is that it would be easier for two people with a vested interest in protecting the other would complicate any error/misbehavior double checks) . But when a couple of coworkers did get engaged they let them decide which one would resign, and gave them a clear timetable so the one who left had plenty of time to find a new job.

    1. Tina*

      Same for a bank I worked at in college. Financial institutions often have more policies in place to protect from such situations. It’s also why an investment firm I worked at required people to take 2 of their 3 weeks of vacation time in one chunk – the longer they were out, the more likely any dirty dealings would be discovered.

  12. April*

    I have a secondary question. Say she and her male coworker are really just friends, going to the movies. Are they going to tell them they can’t be friends? Do they police the male-male and female-female friendships?

    1. Joey*

      If you stick to that story its really hard for a rational employer to conclude otherwise.

    2. EE*

      I have always had plenty of male friends and the notion that I couldn’t hang out with one just because we worked together is terrifying.

  13. Mrs Addams*

    What really riles me about this is the fact that as a woman, the OP can’t simply be friends with a man outside of work for fear of giving the impression they are “together”. I assume that the policy would have nothing to say if the OP was socialising with other women.

    How would the policy work in regards to a gay or lesbian employee? Would they not be allowed to socialise with others of the same gender, so as not to appear as a couple? Or a bisexual employee – are they not allowed to be friends with anyone?

    1. Eric*

      Ooh, that just made me think, if they prohibit you from socializing with coworkers outside of the office, could that be seen as union busting. Kind of like they can’t stop you from talking about your salary with coworkers. I don’t know if I buy this argument, but I’m sure it is there to be made.

        1. Jazzy Red*

          That’s what happy hour is for. You’re actually there to drink, and, well, shop talk happens.

  14. Brett*

    Frances’ post above had me wondering about the role of marital status in this situation. ~40% of states prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of marital status.

    If the OP is in one of those states, would the workplace relationship policy have to be equally enforced against married couples as well as single dating couples? Would a policy like that used by Frances’ dad’s employer be illegal?

    (I am thinking it is not illegal in those states, because it is a combination of marital status plus both partners being employed by the same company, rather than a function of marital status alone. But it was the unequal application of policy that made me not sure.)

    1. Anonymous*

      Michigan has a judicial precedent for something similar. Michigan has a law against cohabitation. It also has a (more recent) law against housing discrimination based on marital status. The state supreme court rules that the anti-discrimination law bars landlords from refusing to rent to tenants on the basis of cohabiting, even though it is still illegal to cohabit.

      I can’t say how that would necessarily play out in an employment case. However, I think only the most idiotic, hair-brained employers actually get caught violating these kinds of rules. They are given so much leeway to fire someone legally that they have to be really dumb not to fabricate an excuse for a firing that is based on a protected status.

  15. CEMgr*

    In a strongly male-dominated workplace, if male-female friendships (platonic or otherwise) are prohibited, women may literally have no co-workers they could be friendly with, whereas men would have nearly the whole workforce. This would definitely be disparate impact for any ability to communicate or organize in a way protected by the NLRB.

    So, if you carpool with someone of the opposite sex, make sure to always mention working conditions during every conversation. I guess. Although I do think federal and some state laws provide a fair amount of theoretical protection for the OP, the reality of today’s workplace is that she may not be willing to risk her job to make that point.

    1. Chinook*

      I agree that it could lead to isolation in any industry where one gender is dominant. If a hospital were to do this, I would feel really sorry for the lone male nurse on the shift as the other nurses would never be allowed to be alone with him.

      1. Ruffingit*

        It would be nearly impossible for a hospital to do that considering how closely nurses must work together to help patients. I think some industries lend themselves to separation more than others, but I get your point.

        I think trying to make rules about opposite sex co-workers being friends is fraught with way too much difficulty to ever enforce it in any meaningful way. Now, dating and marriage among co-workers is another matter entirely as that can present problems to a business all the way from awkward encounters if a fight has occurred between them to a shared embezzlement scheme.

  16. Marnie*

    Bad in the bad old days, I worked between a married couple. He was my boss and I was hers. It was an utter nightmare from start to finish; the hiring committee (which did not include either of them) was forbidden to tell me about the relationship. I bailed after a year, feeling like I had aged ten years.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I bet that made for some interesting conversations before you found out they were married.

      1. Marnie*

        Oh, I found out the first day – via a huge wedding photograph that appeared on her desk that day, and that day only. The interesting conversations were the ones that took place with the hiring committee over the course of the next week. She was amazingly skilled, but she was also bitter, caustic, and the other employees complained about her attitude on a weekly basis. I had no effective way to discipline her. That was longest year of my life.

        1. LPBB*

          If it hadn’t been for the fact that the hiring committee withheld the fact they were married, I’d think you were talking about one of my former workplaces!

    2. PuppyKat*

      Okay, that sucks that they withheld that information from you. To me, it’s pertinent to understanding the entire scope of your duties before you accept the job.

      Plus I think it’s bizarre that your boss-to-be wasn’t included on the hiring committee.

      1. Marnie*

        I thought it was weird at the time, but I was young and naïve and needed the job very badly. Every day got a little more bizarre than the day before. The really sad thing is it turned out to be good practice for my next job!

    3. Kou*

      Great googly moogly I would not ever want to be in that position if I were you *or* the wife.

      1. Marnie*

        The only thing that allowed me to last as long as I did was that a lot of the other employees went way out of their way to help me when she precipitated some kind of crisis. At my goodbye party I found out that there had been an unofficial roster of people looking out for me.

  17. Mike B.*

    Smart employers won’t go anywhere near rules like this. It isn’t by any means a slam-dunk that complaints about sex/sexual orientation discrimination, union-busting or what have you will be judged to have merit, but they’re sufficiently plausible to be a nightmare to deal with.

  18. Elizabeth West*

    My company has the direct report prohibition, but it doesn’t specifically say no dating. It just says use your own judgment and be discreet. Not that I would anyway–see my reasons above, but I like that we’re assumed to be adults.

  19. MR*

    I’m glad my wife drives in one direction to go to work in the morning and I go in the other direction. I love her a ton, but having that separation makes things great.

    I can’t always stand being around myself 24/7/365 and I certainly couldn’t do that with any other person on the planet.

    That being said, what works best for me, doesn’t always work for everyone else.

  20. Kou*

    So I’ve always wondered, what’s the precedent for companies under a certain size to duck under discrimination regulations?

    I’ve always assumed it’s because, in a very small company, minor accommodations can throw the whole place into turmoil– but isn’t that already protected under the caveat that it interferes with ability to perform the job duties? I figure there’s a reason, I just can’t think of one.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Most of the major discrimination laws at the federal level only apply to employers with 15 employees or more. Which is still quite small though.

  21. Ruffingit*

    I’ve worked for four companies where a husband/wife team was present. In all of them, there were massive problems with the situation. In all cases, the company was owned by the husband/wife team and it was always a disaster. I’ve found that most people cannot keep their dysfunctional family dynamic out of the workplace.

    Now, at one of those places, there was a notable exception. A husband and wife worked there, both holding the same title. The husband was laid off and the wife continues to work there now. The husband’s firing wasn’t fair at all and were I in the wife’s shoes I’d have a hard time continuing on with employment there, but whatever.

    Point being, I understand why there are policies against dating in the workplace. That said, the issue of the woman always being fired is a problem here it would seem.

  22. Jen*

    Co-worker dating rightness or wrongness aside, I also wonder about the ‘the woman always goes’ thing.

    In my industry (tech), it’s very common for roles usually occupied by men (engineers) to be hardest, and most critical, to recruit/retain. Roles usually occupied by women (marketing, admin) are generally much easier to replace. Again, right or wrong that jobs and genders end up segmented this way, it is what it is.

    So before calling foul over gender discrimination that the ‘women always go,’ check that it isn’t a case of ‘the employees in more specialized/business critical roles always stay.’

  23. Goosey Lucy*

    I just don’t see the point of banning people from dating.

    Wouldn’t monitoring workplace behavior be good enough to make sure that the relationship is not disruptive? I mean, if they’re making out in the supply closet, that’s a totally different issue than the fact that they’re dating. Same if they break up and are unable to act professionally at the workplace.

  24. Carrie in Scotland*

    In 1 place I worked in retail there were quite a few instances of couples working together.
    There was a couple who were at the same level that met at work and got married. A couple who were together for years prior to them being in the same workplace, with the woman now being assistant manager. A friend of mine who still works there is in a relationship with the assistant manager of the ‘sister’ store.
    There was 1 disaster though between two fellow workers – when they were going 0ut it was wonderful but when they broke up they couldn’t – or she couldn’t – bear to be in the same room or part of the shop! it was awful – esp if 1 of them needed something like cover or money in the tills.

  25. EEOGURU*

    With my previous employer, I was responsible for determining actions on this type of situation. It was a case by case determination, which depended on the working dynamics of the two employees engaged in a relationship. The company conflict of interest policy advised not to hire employee, family, friends and spouses – especially addressing the manager -subordinate relationships, however there were times when co-workers would have a natural attraction for one another and start dating. The only time a determination had to be made regarding one of the parties having to leave, was if one of the employees was the manager or supervisor over the other employee. In which case – I would let them decide whose job was more important. They would have a couple weeks to decide and if a decision was not made – then I would make the decision to terminate the manager/supervisor for violating company policy. The reason for terminating the manager was that this person is held at a higher standard than subordinates and has the responsibility to ensure company policies are consistently administered. In most cases, the lower level employee would resign (or if the employee was a good employee with no performance issues and there was a opening at another nearby location – a transfer would be considered). If the employees worked in separate departments – there was not any issue at all.

  26. SingleDonald*

    I can’t understand the resigned acceptance of the majority of posters, regarding an employer’s “right” to “prohibit” consensual dating between employees, after working hours conclude. I firmly believe that Civil Rights issues are present, such as privacy and free association. Fortunately, I worked for a State Agency (retired 4 years ago), which wouldn’t dare attempt to enforce such a draconian “rule”. Many couples wound up getting married. I could accept a transfer of one or both parties, so long as neither was sent to Timbuktoo! However, to subject anybody to “discipline”, over an after work activity, is akin to the old “master/slave” relationship! Also, it is downright paternalistic to attempt to tell employees who they may socialize with, after work! Furthermore, there is a question of enforcement. Would the sighting of a man with his female manager, co-worker, or underling, at a restaurant, movie theater, or of one entering the other’s residence, be grounds for interrogation, and then “discipline”. The parties involved should refuse to answer any personal questions, regarding something like this!
    I firmly believe that any “discipline”, over consensual dating, should be resisted by whatever means possible!

  27. arreku*

    I work for a company like this, same deal as well. Basically upper management cant date employees, which i understand but think is utter bs. I understand favouritism and things like that, but i highly doubt that would be the case. Just urks me, specially when its someone you truly click with, that in this time and age is not allowed. Are there any loopholes anyone can think of to get around this? Sorry for the rant, jus currently going through something like this and it sucks

  28. Adrianna*

    Hi, my name is Adrianna. At the moment I am dating my ex manager. During the time I was working, I was in a relationship with him. But I quit my job so neither of us would get in trouble. It’s been a month since I quit and now they are looking into it. Can he get fired for being in a relationship with me, although I left the company?

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