What Does Fraternizing in the Workplace Mean?

by Shala Munroe, Demand Media
    Romances at work can lead to problems with sexual harassment and discrimination.

    Romances at work can lead to problems with sexual harassment and discrimination.

    Although "fraternize" can mean simply discussing work conditions with co-workers at social events, it more commonly refers to office romances. When companies create fraternization policies, they typically address whether co-workers can date while they are both employed at the same company. There are a variety of workplace policies to address this issue.

    Why It Exists

    Fraternization occurs when two people meet at work and begin dating. Many people work long hours, spending more time at work than they do at home or engaged in social activity. This makes people at work the most accessible for dating. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women made up 47 percent of the workforce in 2010. Compare that to 1950, when less than 30 percent of the workforce was women. As both genders become equally distributed in the workforce, there's a better chance you could meet your soul mate at work.

    Types of Problems

    The actual act of dating doesn't usually cause serious problems in the workplace, although it can lead to some distractions by the parties involved. As the relationship progresses, however, one of the partners in a position of power might favor the other with financial benefits. This can lead to discrimination charges. For example, a manager is dating a subordinate and gives the subordinate a big raise. Other subordinates get a smaller raise, even though they feel they've done a superior job. They can file a discrimination complaint, saying the partner got the raise because of fraternization, not performance. When the couple breaks up, one of the parties might not want to end the relationship. One party might inadvertently give the other party reason to cry sexual harassment by sending suggestive emails at work, calling the former partner during work hours to express loneliness, or trying to hug the other party in the office.

    Prohibitive Policies

    Many companies include fraternization policies in their employee handbooks outlining what type of dating behavior is acceptable in the workplace. Some prohibit dating altogether, although this is difficult to enforce effectively. Other policies prohibit upper management from dating people lower on the organization chart, or managers from dating direct subordinates. These rules help protect the company from some of the problems that can arise when employees fraternize.

    Disclosing Relationships

    If your company has fraternization policies, read them carefully before engaging in a workplace relationship. Many policies require that you disclose your relationship to your manager, who is then likely to require you and your love interest to sign relationship status forms. In these forms, you admit the relationship and confirm that it is consensual. You also confirm you've read the company discrimination and sexual harassment policies and that you agree to comply with them during and after your relationship, for as long as you both work with the company. It might be uncomfortable to talk to your boss about your workplace romance, but it can help you both keep your jobs in case your relationship is uncovered.

    About the Author

    Based outside Atlanta, Ga., Shala Munroe has been writing and copy editing since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the "Marietta Daily Journal" and the "Atlanta Business Chronicle," she most recently worked in communications and management for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a BA in communications from Jacksonville State University.

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