Fraternization in the workplace is a broad topic. Defined as associating or mingling with others in a friendly or brotherly way, it most commonly means relationships, romantic or otherwise, between people who occupy different levels of authority or power. This generally means a boss and an employee in the workplace, or a teacher and a student. Fraternization can jeopardize the integrity of the official relationships among people, and many organizations develop policies to discourage it.
Romantic relationships include casual dating and committed relationships, generally sexual in nature and including cohabitation. They’re prohibited between officers and enlisted personnel in the military and discouraged between people with different levels of power in many other organizations, especially academia, because of the concern that the personal relationship will affect the formal relationship between two people in the workplace or classroom. Other concerns address the impact of the relationship on the morale of other employees or students and the problems that can arise when the personal relationship faces challenges or dissolves entirely. Organizations that don’t prohibit or discourage such relationships generally require the more ranking person in such relationships to alert the HR department to the existence of the relationship.
When a supervisor and employee on one job enter into a business relationship outside that job, inappropriate behavior becomes a concern. For example, a supervisor at one job with a side business could use his authority to coerce subordinates into working for the side business, even using equipment or supplies from the first on the second.
Borrowing and Lending
Whether supervisors lend or borrow from subordinates, it has an immediate impact on power relationships. The possibility that the subordinate is receiving preferential treatment becomes a real concern. If a subordinate owes the boss money, for instance, can the boss be completely unbiased when contemplating a layoff or overtime assignment?
Supervisors and those they supervise sometimes participate in activities outside the office. Membership on a company athletic team is a good example, and many organizations sponsor seasonal celebrations like summertime picnics or Christmas parties. But a nonromantic relationship that ventures much beyond these innocuous borders may be cause for concern for employers. For example, when a boss and one or two subordinates go on regular hunting or fishing trips, other employees can have legitimate concern that the relationships formed on those outings color decisions the supervisor makes in the workplace.
An example of prohibited fraternization comes from the US military, which prohibited contact of any kind between its troops and German citizens, except on official business, from September 1944, when US troops first set foot on German soil until about a year later. An element of the strict denazification campaign, the rule was also designed to convey the Allies’ disdain for the German people for having allowed the Nazis to achieve power. The US military’s policy since 1999 prohibits fraternization of any type between officers and enlisted personnel, regardless of their chain of command or even branch or service.
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