Q&A with Allen Hutson
Romance in workplace discussed
Q: Valentine's Day comes later this month. What federal and/or state regulations address relationships in the workplace?
A: There are no specific state or federal regulations. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, contains broad prohibitions against discrimination in the workplace, including sex discrimination. Sexual harassment falls within the purview of Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances; requests for sexual favors; and/or any verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
A workplace relationship that goes wrong, as most eventually do, can implicate Title VII and the liability that comes with violations of it. A heartbroken employee may allege that a relationship that was once consensual was not voluntary, and he or she was forced to participate. An allegation of this nature likely would lead to a sexual harassment and/or hostile work environment claim against the employer pursuant to Title VII.
Q: What rights do employees have to engage in workplace relationships?
A: They don't have explicit rights. Some employers ban workplace relationships, and claims by employees that such restrictions violate their constitutional right to privacy have been almost uniformly disregarded by the courts.
Q: Are there considerations for supervisor/employee relationships?
A: Relationships between supervisors and employees are fertile ground for potential litigation. Typically, supervisors have complete control, or at least significant input, into their employees' employment conditions, including, but not limited to, job assignments, discipline, promotions, wage increases/decreases and termination of employment. This abundance of power creates the perfect scenario for an employee to allege that his or her relationship with the supervisor was coerced. Moreover, other employees not engaged in the relationship may have a claim against the employer based on the supervisor's perceived favoritism to the employee engaging in the relationship and/or an uncomfortable, sexually charged work atmosphere.