Question: Our company policy prohibits employees from supervising their family members or people with whom they have a romantic relationship. I believe a female supervisor is romantically involved with one of her direct reports. Can I ask both employees about the relationship and require that they disclose the nature of their relationship? And if either or both of the employees refuse to answer, can I take disciplinary action?
Answer: Yes to both of your questions. You can ask both employees about the existence of a romantic relationship and require them to disclose any romantic relationship with any of your other employees. If either of them refuse to answer your questions and their refusal impedes your ability to determine whether company policy has been violated, you may take disciplinary action. A secret romantic relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate can result in charges of favoritism from other employees. Even worse, if the relationship turns sour, it may trigger violations of your policy against harassment.
Title VII and Workplace Policy Violations
In a recent case, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided an employer didn’t violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when it terminated an HR manager for a policy violation when she refused to disclose a romantic relationship with an employee she helped to hire. The court also found no evidence the company treated the female HR manager any differently than male supervisors who were romantically involved with their subordinates (Owens v. Old Wisconsin Sausage Co. Inc., 7th Cir, August 2017).
Tips for Employers
When questioning employees regarding familial or romantic relationships with fellow employees, make sure you treat similarly situated employees consistently. You may also want to consider beefing up your policy with a process for employees (particularly supervisors) to proactively disclose relationships so you have an opportunity to consider possible reassignments before the relationships pose a conflict of interest or trigger perceptions of favoritism.
For more information, see Vigilant’s Legal Guide, “Workplace Relationships and Nepotism” or ask your Vigilant employment attorney for assistance. Not a Vigilant member? Learn about our flat fee, unlimited employment law advice, and let us know how we can help you update your workplace policies, lead key trainings, and keep you in compliance with ever-changing employment laws.
This website presents general information in nontechnical language. This information is not legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific management decision, consult legal counsel.