Workplace romances can complicate office politics and watercooler conversation, but when the relationships involve employees with unequal power, employers can find their employment policies questioned, publicly scrutinized and even the target of litigation.
That’s the conclusion of a report by New Jersey’s News 12 on the recent ouster of McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, who was dispatched after a consensual relationship with an employee became known. The report says that the ouster and #MeToo movement is prompting more companies to adopt employment policies that address workplace romantic relationships.
News 12 notes that the trend began to adjust policies began before #MeToo, but has since accelerated. Many companies now strictly forbid managers from being in relationships with subordinates, lest the romances lead to favoritism or litigation.
Some even question whether true consent is possible when the power disparity is significant. A number of women who shared #MeToo stories said they feared for their jobs and careers if they rejected propositions from powerful colleagues.
A Washington DC employment law attorney said, “That power difference can create a dynamic where the relationship can never truly be consensual. The #MeToo movement has shown how quickly it can go from consensual in the beginning to a huge problem when the relationship goes awry.”
Easterbook’s downfall is hastening efforts at McDonald’s and elsewhere to step up efforts to reduce incidents of sexual harassment, employee complaints and litigation. Other CEOs have seen their tenures ended, including Intel’s Brian Krzanich, Priceline’s Darren Huston, Best Buy’s Brian Dunn and Boeing’s Harry Stonecipher.
Firms are increasingly turning to employment law attorneys for help in crafting policies that discourage office dating between managers and subordinates, as well as for guidance in strengthening sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures.