Magazine article Management Review

Cupid in a Three-Piece Suit

Magazine article Management Review

Cupid in a Three-Piece Suit

Article excerpt

In your personal opinion, is it okay to date an office coworker? If your answer is yes, you're in agreement with three-quarters of the respondents to a recent fax poll conducted by the American Management Association for Money magazine. Dating a superior or a subordinate, however, might prove fodder for Oprah: About three-quarters of the respondents disapproved of dating someone on a different rung of the corporate ladder.

Perhaps the 485 respondents, all of whom are managers in AMA member companies, instinctively know the downside to office dating: Supervisor-subordinate romances are fraught with corporate liability. In Meritor vs. Vinson, the Supreme Court ruled that the agency principle-- which states that employers are liable for acts of their "agents" or supervisors-is applicable in sexual harassment suits.

Under the rule, if a supervisor gives preferential treatment to one subordinate with whom he or she is romantically involved, other subordinates could take action on the grounds that they are being denied good work assignments, promotions or pay increases. Given the heightened liability, the employer has a right to intervene in superior-subordinate romances, according to the authors of a recent HRFocus article.

In the article, Sharon Clinebell, Lynn Hoffman and John Kilpatrick, all management professors, point oUt that employers are less liable when coworkers at the same level date because the agency principle does not apply. In fact, an employer may get into trouble if it tries to police worker conduct: WalMart lost a lawsuit after it attempted to forbid coworkers (one of whom was already married) from dating each other.

Given the legal downside, and all the attention paid lately to sexual harassment issues, it is perhaps surprising that only 6 percent of respondents to the AMA poll report that their organizations have a written policy regarding employee dating.

Employers may also have a stake in conflict-of-interest romances, when the worker is dating a client's or competitor's employee. The management professors suggest that dating policies should require anyone who might be experiencing a conflict of interest due to romantic involvement to immediately inform his or her supervisor or human resources manager. A fine line must be drawn between the rights of the employer and the rights of the individual, they point out: IBM incurred a lawsuit when it tried to dissuade one of its own from dating a competitor's employee.

A comprehensive dating policy, the professors concur, should include the following:

* Explanation of sexual harassment and of when unwelcome romantic advances turn into sexual harassment;

* Steps necessary to inform the company of sexual harassment;

* Requirements that the supervisor and the subordinate report the relationship to the immediate supervisor (for the supervisor) and the appropriate HR manager (for the subordinate);

* Requirements that coworkers report their situation to their supervisor if one party wishes to terminate the relationship and minimize contact with the former partner; and

* Explanation of discipline and discharge procedures if unwelcome advances continue. …

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