McDonald’s recent termination of its highly-regarded CEO Steve Easterbrook provides employers with another high-profile reminder of shifting attitudes regarding workplace romances, even voluntary ones.  As most are now aware, McDonald’s board of directors determined that their CEO had violated company policy and shown “poor judgment” by having a romantic relationship with a subordinate employee.

While interoffice dating is not a new phenomenon and office romances remain prevalent, McDonald’s quick move to terminate Easterbrook illustrates how shifting attitudes related to power dynamics have caused many to reexamine workplace relationships.  High profile allegations against several powerful individuals, the advent of the #MeToo movement, and an increase in related litigation underscore the challenge of determining what is truly “voluntary” in the context of a workplace relationship.  This is particularly true when one of the participants holds a position of power or authority in the workplace.

Employers should take a proactive approach regarding workplace romances and the ultimate need to prevent sexual harassment.  Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” solution to the potential morale and legal issues that can result from workplace romances.  An employer’s unique history and culture may inform its position regarding these relationships.  At a minimum, however, employers should consider taking the following steps to avoid the practical and legal problems that may result from workplace romances:

  • Proactively address the issue of workplace romances. Because relationships are inevitable, employers should determine their position in advance.  Alternatives include – 1) prohibiting some (e.g., direct reports) or all romantic relationships by adopting a non-fraternization policy, or 2) acknowledging and addressing romantic relationships through the use of a “love contract,” essentially a written agreement between the employees that establishes the voluntary nature of their relationship and provides mechanisms to protect the employees (and the employer) in the event that the relationship ends badly.
  • Review and “modernize” workplace policies relating to all forms of unlawful harassment. Anti-harassment policies should be closely reviewed and made more approachable, stripping away decades-old legalese and other formulaic language.  Updates should include ensuring that employees are provided an effective and accessible reporting mechanism for complaints of harassment, as well as clearly illustrating behaviors that will not be tolerated, even if these behaviors do not rise to the level of unlawful harassment.
  • Regularly train employees, and particularly managers. All employees should receive training that covers both sexual harassment and other forms of workplace harassment on a regular basis.  Managers and supervisors should receive additional training, particularly on how to recognize harassment, how to handle a harassment complaint, and how to have a conversation about harassment.
  • Follow the policy and investigate promptly. All complaints should be taken seriously, regardless of the employer’s initial or personal belief as to the validity of a complaint.  Employers should be careful not to ignore rumors of sexual relationships, as this is often an indication of a situation which, at a minimum, warrants further investigation.  In all instances, complaints should be investigated immediately so that the employer can take appropriate remedial action based upon the results of the investigation.
  • Foster a culture that discourages sexual harassment. A workplace culture that does not tolerate sexual harassment must start at the top.  Management, including senior executives, must buy into the policy and voice their support for the policy.