The MeToo movement has highlighted the reality that people who work closely together can develop romantic feelings about a co-worker. In many cases, these feelings are not reciprocated, and how the party who desires a sexual or romantic relationship deal with that can create problems.

Surveys have estimated that 20 percent of married partners met each other in the workplace. My youngest son met his girlfriend while they worked for the same employer. Work is a common place for people to get to know each other. But when a supervisor wants a relationship with a subordinate, things can get very messy.

How can the supervisor be certain the relationship is consensual? When the supervisor has authority over the other employee’s assignments, compensation, promotions and conditions of work, is the subordinate really consenting to the relationship? And what happens when the relationship ends? Can the supervisor objectively manage a former lover or romantic partner, without the subordinate’s perception that the supervisor is retaliating?

We have learned that Garrison Keillor, once a respected and beloved Minnesota figure, was engaged in some kind of romantic relationship with an employee who wrote for his radio show, Prairie Home Companion. In a Pioneer Press article he is quoted as saying, “No button was unbuttoned and no zipper was unzipped. I never kissed her … This was a flirtation between two writers that took place in writing.” Nonetheless, Mr. Keillor and this employee engaged in sexual banter and wrote extremely intimate notes to each other as they exchanged copy for the radio show. Mr. Keillor assumed she enjoyed and consented to these interchanges, while apparently she felt she had to participate to remain in his favor.

Because consent is so difficult to prove, we recommend that employers consider developing policies that address how romantic relationships will be handled. Although it seems easiest to simply prohibit employees from dating each other, it is not advisable to do so. It is a policy which will be impossible to enforce.

Instead, an employer should consider a policy which is realistic. Suggested elements of a consensual romantic relationship policy could include:

  • A requirement that the employees inform the employer that they are having a relationship
  • A requirement that the employees enter into an agreement which specifies that the relationship is entirely consensual, and they will inform the employer if the relationship ends
  • Provide for including the policy in sexual harassment training so that employees are aware of the policy and whom they should inform if a romantic relationship develops
  • A prohibition of a supervisor engaging in a romantic relationship with an employee who directly reports to the supervisor

In the current legal environment it is extremely difficult to prove that a relationship was consensual when there is a power imbalance between the two employees and one employee has authority over the other employee.