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The Perils of Dating in the Workplace

A Cultural Divide

Are we headed for a cultural conflict with respect to the acceptability of dating in the workplace? Recent revelations that McDonald’s Corporation CEO Steve Easterbrook had a consensual relationship with an employee and the board of director’s decision to terminate him raises concerns that what corporations feel is appropriate and what employees believe should be acceptable differ on the dating issue. After all, “the heart wants what the heart wants.”

There is no doubt that McDonald’s decision was driven by heightened sensitivity to dating issues and possible sexual harassment claims in light of the Me Too movement. After all, dating relationships are fraught with danger. The ethical problems are most pronounced when a superior to whom an employee reports, or any one with influence over performance evaluation, dates a subordinate. Here are a few of the ethical issues:

  • A conflict of interests exists. The superior may be looking for a lifetime partner while the subordinate is looking for a leg up in the company.
  • If the superior and subordinate are on the same engagement, favorable tasks may be given to the subordinate.
  • Other employees may come to believe that favoritism exists because of the relationship.
  • Workplace productivity may suffer. The two parties may spend more time together during the workday than is typically allowed – i.e., longer lunches, coming in late.
  • Fraternizing at a client’s office, as may occur in an external audit engagement, may create problems and questions about the ethics of a company that permits such relationships.
  • If the relationship goes south, allegations of sexual harassment may exist. Dating in workplace

It’s worth noting that a 2018 survey by Career Builder conducted by Harris Poll  shows that 36 percent of workers reported dating a co-worker, down from 41 percent in the previous year most likely because of the influence of the Me Too movement. Twenty-two percent of workers have dated someone who was their boss at the time. Thirty-five percent of female workers reported dating someone at a higher level in the company than them, compared to 25 percent of their male coworkers.

The fact is there is a conflict of cultures in the workplace on these dating issues. Millennials are more open to dating someone in the workplace than older generations, such as baby boomers. In part, this is due to the fact that the workday has become 24-hours long with texting out-of-the-office at all times that might draw workers closer. Also, because the workday has expanded, it’s become more difficult for workers to bar hop and they rely more frequently on meeting the love of their life at work.

A word to the wise. Like McDonald’s, all companies should have clear policies on dating and hold their employees to them. The policy should include a full disclosure requirement for the dating partners even if the company permits such relationships. Transparency is important. Otherwise, all sorts of rumors may get started and spread like wildfire. Finally, the dating partners should establish an exit plan about what they will do if the relationship goes south. Will one or the other ask to be transferred to a different department or branch of the organization, or maybe even leave the company?

It’s a shame that fraternizing with coworkers has become the third rail of workplace interaction. It seems one party can’t say things about the other’s appearance – even compliments – and, certainly, putting your hand on their shoulder as a gesture of kindness and support is out of bounds.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 7, 2019. Dr. Mintz recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that explains how doing the right thing and being a good person can enhance well-being. The book is available on Amazon. Visit his website, sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.