Work­place ro­mances could be per­ilous

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Alexan­dra Olson and Dee-Ann Durbin AP Busi­ness Writ­ers

NEW YORK >> Work­place cou­ples are of­ten ro­man­ti­cized — think Bill and Melinda Gates or Michelle and Barack Obama. But when the re­la­tion­ship in­volves two peo­ple with un­equal power, it can also be fraught with peril, es­pe­cially in the #MeToo era.

Mc­Don­ald’s CEO Steve Easter­brook is only the lat­est chief ex­ec­u­tive to be ousted over a con­sen­sual re­la­tion­ship with an em­ployee. In­creas­ingly, U.S. com­pa­nies are adopt­ing poli­cies ad­dress­ing work­place ro­mances, a trend that be­gan well be­fore the #MeToo move­ment gal­va­nized a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing sex­ual mis­con­duct.

Ad­dress­ing work­place ro­mance can be com­pli­cated, but many com­pa­nies re­move any gray ar­eas by for­bid­ding man­agers, es­pe­cially C-suite ex­ec­u­tives, from hav­ing re­la­tion­ships with sub­or­di­nates given the po­ten­tial for fa­voritism or law­suits if the re­la­tion­ship sours.

There are ques­tions about whether con­sent is truly pos­si­ble when the power im­bal­ance is es­pe­cially great. Many women who have come for­ward to share their #MeToo sto­ries have said that they feared the con­se­quences of say­ing no to a pow­er­ful per­son who could in­flu­ence their ca­reers.

“That power dif­fer­ence can cre­ate a dy­namic where the re­la­tion­ship can never truly be con­sen­sual,” said De­bra Katz, a founder part­ner of the law firm Katz Marshall & Banks who has rep­re­sented women in sev­eral prom­i­nent sex­ual ha­rass­ment cases. “The #MeToo move­ment has shown how quickly it can go from con­sen­sual in the be­gin­ning to a huge prob­lem when the re­la­tion­ship goes awry.”

Easter­brook’s de­par­ture comes as Mc­Don­ald’s steps up its ef­forts to stop sex­ual ha­rass­ment af­ter dozens of em­ployee com­plaints.

Over the last three years, more than 50 Mc­Don­ald’s em­ploy­ees have filed cases al­leg­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment with the U.S. Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion or in state courts, ac­cord­ing to Fight for $15, a la­bor ad­vo­cacy group.

In Au­gust, the hamburger chain un­veiled a pro­gram to teach its 850,000 U.S. em­ploy­ees how to rec­og­nize and re­port ha­rass­ment and bul­ly­ing. Fran­chisees — who own 95% of Mc­Don­ald’s 14,000 U.S. restau­rants — aren’t re­quired to of­fer the train­ing, but the com­pany ex­pects them to pro­vide it.

Mc­Don­ald’s said Easter­brook vi­o­lated com­pany pol­icy for­bid­ding man­agers from hav­ing ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships with di­rect or in­di­rect sub­or­di­nates. In an email to em­ploy­ees, Easter­brook said the re­la­tion­ship was a mis­take and he agreed “it is time for me to move on.” He was re­placed by Chris Kem­pczin­ski, who re­cently served as pres­i­dent of Mc­Don­ald’s USA.

Time’s Up, a group that fights ha­rass­ment and has been sup­port­ing work­ers’ le­gal cases, said Easter­brook’s de­par­ture should pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for Mc­Don­ald’s to do more, in­clud­ing mak­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment train­ing manda­tory.

“Un­der the new lead­er­ship of Chris Kem­pczin­ski, Mc­Don­ald’s has an op­por­tu­nity, and obli­ga­tion, to act to en­sure that all of its lo­ca­tions are safe and eq­ui­table for all,” said Jennifer Klein, chief strat­egy and pol­icy of­fi­cer at Time’s Up.

Easter­brook fol­lowed in the foot­steps of In­tel Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Brian Krzanich, who re­signed last year af­ter the chip­maker found he en­gaged in a re­la­tion­ship that vi­o­lated a “non-frat­er­niza­tion” pol­icy that ap­plies to all man­agers.

Other CEOs who have been pushed out over con­sen­sual re­la­tion­ships, in­clude Dar­ren Hus­ton of on­line travel com­pany Price­line, Brian Dunn of Best Buy and Harry Stoneci­pher of aero­space com­pany Boe­ing.

In 2005 — the year Stoneci­pher was pushed out — just a quar­ter of U.S. work­places had poli­cies ad­dress­ing con­sen­sual re­la­tion­ships, ac­cord­ing to the So­ci­ety for Hu­man Re­sources Man­age­ment, the world’s largest group of hu­man re­sources pro­fes­sion­als.

By 2013, the num­ber had jumped to 42%, ac­cord­ing to a SHRM sur­vey that year of 384 of its mem­bers. Of those work­places, 99% pro­hib­ited ro­mance be­tween a su­per­vi­sor and a di­rect re­port.

SHRM has not con­ducted a more re­cent sur­vey on the is­sue, but other re­search sug­gests such poli­cies are even more com­mon now. In a 2018 sur­vey of 150 hu­man re­sources ex­ec­u­tives, the ex­ec­u­tive coach­ing firm Chal­lenger, Gray & Christ­mas found that 78% of com­pa­nies had poli­cies dis­cour­ag­ing dat­ing be­tween sub­or­di­nates and man­agers.

Much more com­pli­cated is how far to go with such poli­cies. Not all poli­cies per­tain just to bosses and their un­der­lings.

The SHRM study found that 45% em­ploy­ers with work­place ro­mance poli­cies for­bid re­la­tion­ships be­tween em­ploy­ees of sig­nif­i­cant rank dif­fer­ences, while 35% pro­hib­ited them be­tween em­ploy­ees who re­port to the same su­per­vi­sor.

Many hu­man re­sources pro­fes­sion­als, how­ever, be­lieve it’s un­re­al­is­tic to adopt a blan­ket ban on work­place ro­mance.

A SHRM sur­vey from Jan­uary 2019 found that one-third of Amer­i­can adults have been in a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with some­one at work.

“Peo­ple meet at work. It’s not an un­com­mon place for ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships to start,” said John Gan­non, an em­ploy­ment law at­tor­ney with Skoler Ab­bott in Spring­field, Mas­sachusetts.

A grow­ing trend among small com­pa­nies is to spon­sor happy hours for their staffers to in­crease ca­ma­raderie, said David Lewis, CEO of HR provider Oper­a­tionsInc, based in Nor­walk, Con­necti­cut. Those events can be fer­tile ground for ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships, so it’s hard for a busi­ness owner to then tell staffers to break up or quit, he said.

Some com­pa­nies have what are known as “love con­tract,” which re­quire dis­clos­ing re­la­tion­ships to the com­pany and agree­ing to act ap­pro­pri­ately.

Lewis said he has seen a big in­crease in busi­ness own­ers ask­ing for on-site train­ing ses­sions for em­ploy­ees to raise their aware­ness on what con­sti­tutes ha­rass­ment. Those ses­sions dis­cuss re­la­tion­ships be­tween staffers and warn that both part­ners in a re­la­tion­ship must act pro­fes­sion­ally with no pub­lic dis­plays of af­fec­tion. And they’re ex­pected to re­main pro­fes­sional if they break up.

RICHARD DREW — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

On July 26, 2017, Mc­Don­ald’s CEO Steve Easter­brook is in­ter­viewed at the New York Stock Ex­change. Mc­Don­ald’s said Sun­day, Nov. 3, that Easter­brook has stepped down af­ter vi­o­lat­ing com­pany pol­icy by en­gag­ing in a con­sen­sual re­la­tion­ship with an em­ployee.

RICHARD DREW — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The logo for Mc­Don­ald’s ap­pears above a trad­ing post on the floor of the New York Stock Ex­change on Mon­day, Nov. 4. Mc­Don­ald’s sank 2.3% af­ter its CEO was ousted af­ter vi­o­lat­ing com­pany pol­icy by hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with an em­ployee.

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