Americans who work full-time spend more hours per week in the office than they do anywhere else. It is not surprising then that workplace romances are common and many people meet their significant other or spouse while at work.
While a workplace romance is often exciting and entertaining for the employees involved, many employers frown on these relationships. When employees date, there is a possibility of favoritism in hiring or promotions, and the employees may be less productive if they are distracted by each other. If the couple breaks up, one or both employees may quit or file harassment claims against each other.
For all of these reasons, employers tend to discourage coworkers from dating. However, are they allowed to prohibit them entirely? Is it legal for an employer to forbid employees from dating each other?
In practice, it is difficult for employers to completely ban romantic relationships. First, enforcing a non-dating policy would require employers to police employees’ free time. Second, the California Labor Code protects employees’ right to privacy, and specifically protects “lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from an employer’s premises.” This means that an employer may be able to regulate expressions of love while on the job, but the employer cannot prohibit two consenting adults from maintaining a relationship on their own time.
When a company does allow romantic relationships it can be difficult to prevent discrimination or sex-based harassment, especially when a relationship is between a superior and a subordinate. For instance, suppose a manager and his employee date for six months before breaking up. During the relationship, the manager may have played favorites with the employee and avoided disciplining her for minor matters. After the relationship, the employee may feel targeted or discriminated if the manager fails to promote her or give her a raise.
All of these situations could lead to a hostile work environment and actionable sex-based harassment. Both the manager and the employee could have a claim against the company they work for if the potentially hostile work environment is not addressed. In fact, under California law the employer and/or company could be liable for creating a hostile work environment even if he or she was unaware that harassment or discrimination was occurring.
In addition, people outside of the relationship may also have a claim against the employer. In the case of Miller v. Department of Corrections, the California Supreme Court held that a consensual office romance between a supervisor and a subordinate could constitute a hostile work environment for other employees if it resulted in “sexual favoritism.” If other employees are discriminated against or harassed because they are not in the office relationship, those employees could also sue their employers for damages.
If an office romance does take a turn for the worst, employers must provide their employees with procedures to make complaints. Any instances of harassment in Fair Oaks or Fair Oaks discrimination must be investigated and addressed in a timely manner. If an employer fails to comply with these requirements, then those employees should address their concerns with an experienced California employment law attorney. Contact Labor Law Office today.
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