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co-worker relationships

Managers must deal with
co-worker relationships

“Two of my staffers are romantically involved. They’re spending a lot of time together at lunch, on breaks and in each other’s offices. I’m concerned that their situation is beginning to affect their performance. How do I deal with this gracefully? I’m also concerned that if the relationship goes sour, it could have a profound effect on our department’s productivity. What do you think?”
Obviously, this is an extremely delicate, complicated issue that many managers would like to avoid if at all possible.
But there is no denying that romantic relationships occur frequently at work. Experts say that an estimated 50 percent of people find their future spouses at work.
While many companies prohibit romances between managers and subordinates out of concern about potential sexual-harassment claims, fewer employers have written policies prohibiting such relationships between co-workers.
Susan Schulz Laluk, a partner with Boylan, Brown, Code, Fowler, Vigdor & Wilson LLP, discourages employers from implementing similar policies for co-workers.
“I think it’s overkill–it drives (the relationship) underground, which doesn’t help the situation at all,” she says.
But if this behavior is indeed affecting the performances of the two co-workers involved, then it certainly is time for you to do something about it. Ignoring it could cause you lots of problems, Laluk says.
Ask yourself this question: How do you discipline those who spend too much time on breaks or personal phone calls?
“Take a step back and treat this the way you would anything else involving productivity,” Laluk says. “Many managers get flustered about it because it involves a sexual relationship.”
But as you decide what action to take, be careful not to overreact, cautions Sherri McArdle, president and partner of Leadership Systems Inc. in Rochester.
“Often an anxious response to a problem is worse than the problem itself,” she says.
It also is important to be informed–to separate fact from fiction–and know the company’s policies, she says.
Office romances like this can threaten the “emotional ecology” of your department–or, put another way, the “framework of relationships that define a culture” and provide a sense of teamwork, McArdle says.
If you don’t address the productivity issue here, you are risking the potential loss of morale, as well as high levels of anger and complacency among other team members, she says.
In situations like this, where co-workers have to pick up additional work, “teams don’t perform at their best,” she says, and staffers believe that management has hidden agendas.
McArdle suggests talking to the co-workers individually, in a non-judgmental way, by saying: “I have a business problem here, and I need your help solving it.”
Though the relationship here involves two co-workers–not a manager/subordinate relationship–you still could face some potential legal issues if you do not address the situation, local lawyers say.
Believe it or not, a third-party sexual-harassment lawsuit could be filed by other co-workers who are upset and offended by this couple’s behavior. This type of suit would fall under the “hostile environment” classification, Laluk says.
The law gets murky in other areas related to office romances, lawyers say. New York, for instance, has a law called the Legal Activities Bill, which says employees cannot be discriminated against for “off-duty recreational activities” among other things.
“So is an office romance an off-duty recreational activity? Can an employer forbid it? Not an easy question,” says Sharon Stiller, an author and partner with Underberg & Kessler LLP.
The law was tested recently when two Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employees were fired because they were having a relationship. They sued, as did the New York Attorney General’s Office, claiming that the romance was a protected “lawful activity.”
However, the courts disagreed, saying the Lawful Activities Bill was never intended to protect that type of conduct, Stiller says.
In another case, though, the Southern District Federal Court ruled to the contrary. A woman who was fired claimed it was because she was living with an ex-employee who was then working for a competitor.
The federal judge said the firing could constitute a claim under the Lawful Activities Bill, Stiller says.
If the relationship goes sour, you could face morale issues inside the office, as well as legal issues.
The employer still can be sued for harassment if the ramifications are severe, and the employer knows or should know about the situation, Stiller says.
In one local case, for example, a man started stalking a former friend after she broke up with him. The employer, which did nothing, was held liable, she says.
While the risk of a lawsuit is somewhat less in the case of a relationship between two co-workers, you still have to be aware of these issues and let the employees know about your concerns.
You can make it clear that you’re not trying to legislate morality, Laluk says, but that you care about the potential loss of productivity.
You also can add that you want to make sure the company “is not put at risk for liability.”
(Managers at Work is a bimonthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at 249-9242 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.)

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