Workplace relationships add an element of complication to the environment even when relationships are between equals. When a supervisor has a relationship with an employee under his management, the dynamics can be toxic for the workplace. Laws exist to protect employees in such situations, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which defines sexual harassment, and the difference between quid pro quo relationships and hostile environment harassment in the workplace.
Relationships between a supervisor and his or her employee can have a negative impact on the entire organization. Other employees who notice the relationship may claim a hostile work environment has been created by the ongoing relationship between a supervisor and his or her subordinate. In Miller vs. Department of Corrections (2005), the courts determined in the case of a prison warden who had sexual relationships with three of his subordinates that employers should be held responsible for a supervisor's actions in sexual harassment situations.
Sexual Harassment Guidelines
The guidelines for sexual harassment are outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) explains the definitions and instances of sexual harassment in detail. According to the EEOC, "Harassment can include 'sexual harassment' or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature." The EEOC also explains that the victim can be harassed by a co-worker, an outside vendor or visitor to the workplace, or the employee's supervisor. It is in this latter instance, where the relationships between supervisors and employees can become a problem in the workplace. The laws are in place to protect both the employee as well as the employer or organization. Since employers can be held responsible in states such as California for the actions of their supervisors, there are regulations and requirements for sexual harassment training for all managers in an organization with fifty or more employees.
Laws About Relationships
Laws about relationships between supervisors and employees are those guidelines that fall under Title VII. There is not a specific federal regulation regarding supervisor/employee relationships, only the guidelines against sexual harassment. Most often, in intimate relationships between a supervisor and an employee, the quid pro quo sexual harassment could appear to be in place. The supervisor may ask for sexual favors in exchange for a promotion, a transfer that the employee has requested, extra time off that is not granted to other employees, or workplace perks such as a better parking spot. It is up to the company to train supervisors on the necessary methods of employee relations, treating all employees equally, and not showing favoritism to any employee.
Play It Safe
One thing that companies can do in order to protect the dynamics of the workplace and to foster a positive work environment is to adopt a company policy that prohibits dating between supervisors and employees. Also, requiring all managers to complete sexual harassment training as often as deemed necessary by the company's officers is a great tool. The relationship between a supervisor and an employee may not appear to be a problem at the time of the romance, or right after, but an employee can come back and claim sexual harassment even after the relationship has ended. This can create quite a predicament for the organization, so it is best if the workplace adopts a policy to protect not only the employees but also the corporation from lawsuits or legal action taken by disgruntled or romantically heartbroken employees following a romantic entanglement.
Jennifer Burton is a human resources professional based in California. She holds an M.A. in American studies from California State University, Fullerton.