Topic of the Week Dating on the job and fraternization? How far can your employer go?
There is no single law protecting the rights of employees while they are off work. Instead, other areas of the law, such as discrimination, drug testing, and harassment laws, protect an employee's off-duty conduct. Therefore, each different off-duty conduct issue must be looked at carefully.
Company Policy Requiring Employees to Report Inter-Office Relationships:
Some companies concerned about sexual harassment have instituted strict "anti-nepotism" or dating policies which seek to prevent workers from dating certain or all coworkers. While generally these policies are designed to prevent you from dating someone in your chain-of-command, be sure that you do not violate your company's policy, which may be more strict than the most common policies. Some companies now ask that you notify the company before dating a coworker, and may require that you sign a "relationship contract," indicating that the relationship is voluntary and consensual.
An increasing number of companies are adding these policies, and most of these policies have thus far survived legal challenges. If your company has such a policy, it is probably best to comply with the policy and disclose the relationship, especially if your relationship has reached a point where other coworkers are likely to find out about it. Voluntarily disclosing the information up front will make it easier for you and your company to address any potential problems that could result, such as issues related to one employee's authority over another, promotion/advancement which could lead to supervision issues, and what happens if you break up.
"No Fraternization" Policies:
You might think that who you hang out with when you're off the job is not the boss's business, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently upheld a very restrictive anti-fraternization policy, which made it against the rules for a security company's guards to "fraternize on duty or off duty, date, or become overly friendly with the client's employees or with co-employees."
While the policy was ostensibly enacted for safety and security purposes, its chilling effect goes much further. The policy was challenged by the guard's union, who argued that this kind of provision discouraged workers from exercising their right to organize unions and engage in concerted activity. After all, if you can't get overly friendly with your fellow employees, or spend time with them away from the workplace, chances are good that you're not going to feel safe complaining about work to someone you don't know very well, and certainly aren't going to take the chance of talking about banding together to join a union.
While the NLRB's ruling says that "we believe that employees would reasonably understand the rule to prohibit only personal entanglements, rather than activity protected by the Act," it's still unclear which "personal entanglements" would violate the company's policy. If more employers enact similar policies preventing fraternization, it is likely that there will be more lawsuits brought by workers fired for violating them, given the difficulty of defining what kind of relationships violate such policies and the possibility that they inhibit union and other collective activity. If you are subject to a no-fraternization policy, and have questions about what it means, you may want to consult with a local attorney to determine whether the policy appears to violate any laws.