McDonald’s is in the news this week after their Board told their CEO, Steve Easterbrook, to “move on” after learning that he had been engaging in a romantic relationship with an employee. While the relationship was “consensual,” McDonald’s policy forbids managers from having romantic relationships with subordinates – whether they directly supervise them or otherwise. Easterbrook acknowledged that what he had done was against the “values of the company.”
A similar story broke last week when Congresswoman Katie Hill resigned amid allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers in her office and on her campaign team.
So what’s wrong with finding love at the office? In both of these cases, the (main) issue was the imbalance of power. In our post #metoo era the issues inherent in relationships with power imbalances are being taken seriously and acted on.
Both Hill and Easterbrook were at the top of their respective food chains. They engaged in romantic relationships with those below them on those food chains and with those over whom they held power in the workplace. Whether they were in relationships with those whom they directly supervised or not, there is no question that both Hill and Easterbrook would have had the power to impact their lovers’ trajectory at work – for good or ill – should they have chosen to do so.
What’s a Power Imbalance?
While both of these news examples are courtesy of our friends to the south, this is an issue that comes up frequently in workplaces all over the world. In Ontario, the Human Rights Code directly addresses the situation of sexual advances made by those in positions of power – check out section 7(3) – enshrining the right to be free from unwanted advances in our law. The Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act contains similar language.
The trouble with engaging in a romantic relationship with someone over whom you hold power is that their consent to such a relationship cannot be truly said to be voluntary. Maybe your secretary is dating you not because she actually digs you, but because she’s afraid (probably fairly) that you’ll fire her or start treating her badly if she rejects you.
Liability for Employers
Employers who look the other way when the professor starts dating their research assistant or the boss starts dating the janitor risk claims of sexual harassment. Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe workplace and to prevent and address sexual harassment. Passively condoning office relationships where power imbalances exist could be a violation of that duty.
Preventative policies on this topic are essential. Employers need to be able to rely on clearly established standards of conduct in order to take next steps with employees who may be in violation. Where a romantic relationship exists between a superior and a subordinate, employers should take immediate steps to ensure that conflicts of interest are prevented as much a possible and get legal advice about how to manage the situation. Often situations will be serious enough to require responses like the one taken by McDonald’s.
If you’d like to discuss how to deal with the romance in your office get in touch!