“Cause Breaking up is Hard to Do,” unless You’re McDonald’s
By Amelia J. Holstrom - Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C.
November 7, 2019
On November 3, 2019, news broke that McDonald’s Board of Directors voted to terminate CEO, Steve Easterbrook, for having a consensual relationship with another employee. Early reports indicate that McDonald’s Board found the relationship to be inappropriate and in violation of its policy that prohibits managers from having romantic relationships with direct or indirect subordinates. You may be asking, can McDonald’s do that? Yes, it can and so can you.
It isn’t any secret that people spend most of their waking hours at work. Not surprisingly, office romances sometimes bloom. What better place to meet a mate, right? From the employer’s point of view, dating in the workplace spells trouble, as highlighted in this Washington Post article (in which my colleague John Gannon was quoted). Office romances create many problems. Because employers cannot prevent their employees’ emotions from forming, it is important to address workplace romances well in advance of any potential problems.
Workplace dating is a recipe for disaster in more ways than one. In addition to decreasing morale and productivity, when true love goes sour, employees often cannot work with each other anymore, or worse, workplace romances can ultimately lead to sexual harassment and/or discrimination and retaliation claims. Assume, for example, that a superior and subordinate have been dating for some time. Their romance fizzles and things end. What if the subordinate now claims to have felt pressured into the relationship? A supervisor’s relationship with a subordinate is the most damaging to the company because of the legal consequences. In Massachusetts, when a supervisor engages in harassment of a subordinate, even if there is no direct reporting relationship, a business is automatically liable for that harassment.
“I would do Anything for Love,” but I Won’t let Supervisors Date Subordinates
How should you combat workplace romances? Employers can adopt policies on personal relationships in the workplace that specifically prohibit supervisors and managers from engaging in any romantic relationships with employees at the company, including direct and indirect subordinates. If you choose to adopt such a policy, it should state that such relationships raise ethical and fairness issues, problems with favoritism and morale and that they will not be tolerated. Employers should also spell out what will happen if such a relationship is discovered. Some employers confront the couple, indicate that if they wish to continue the relationship one must resign, and let the employees decide who will resign. Other employers confront the employees and terminate the employment of one or both of them effective immediately. It depends on the stance your business wants to take.
What if you don’t want to prohibit such relationships at your workplace? Another approach used by some employers is to have employees in a relationship enter into a “Love Contract.” A love contract essentially memorializes, in writing, the consensual nature of the employees’ relationship. Be careful here though. Love contracts are not prospective as they will not limit the company’s liability for future sexual harassment and/or discrimination and retaliation claims. They may only be helpful to demonstrate that there was a consensual relationship between the employees before and at the time the employees signed the contract.
“You Oughta Know”
All employers can learn a valuable lesson from the situation involving McDonald’s. Each employer should consider how it wants to handle workplace romances before one becomes an issue for its business. Having a plan or policy in place could save you a lot of heartaches, I mean headaches.
(I’d like to thank Meatloaf, Don Henley, Alanis Morissette, Nazareth, and The Carpenters for their wise lyrics about love.)
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