I’ve noticed one of my employees, “Julia,” eating lunch frequently with another manager in a different department, “Greg.” There are no rules against dating across departments, but I know this manager. He’s been through multiple women, and it all ends badly, and she quits. I don’t know if anyone has ever filed a sexual harassment charge against him, but I doubt it. As far as I know, the relationships are consensual. I told my employee to make sure she eats with a variety of people as it looks bad to always be with Greg, but she’s ignoring it. I’m trying to save her from a bad mistake. What should I do here?
It is none of your business who your employee meets as long as it doesn’t interfere with her work or violate company rules. It’s perfectly acceptable, if not preferable, to walk away from this and simply be prepared to pick up the pieces if things fall apart. But if you still feel strongly about it, here are five things to think about before you say anything else.
1. Don’t make assumptions about why Greg and Julia are meeting
Is Greg in a position to mentor your employee? It can be beneficial to have a mentor who isn’t your direct supervisor. Is it possible that your employee’s lunches with Greg are helping to move your employee’s career forward? As Julia’s manager, you’re well-placed to connect her with possible mentors, and it makes sense for you to know if she has met any at the company. You can ask Julia if she is interested in being introduced to mentors and use that opportunity to ask if she has already found one.
2. You can’t police who someone eats lunch with
Whatever the motivation behind Greg and Julia’s meetings, lunch is the employee’s own time. Policing puts you in a place you don’t want to be. What are the boundaries? Deciding if someone’s lunch partner is sketchy or not? Yikes. That’s way too much to be involved in. The exception would be if Greg was one of your employee’s direct reports. Then you’d want to point out that exclusively or excessively eating with one direct report is terrible management, and she needs to change her behavior. But in this situation, Greg and Julia are in different departments, and there are no rule violations.
3. Avoid gossip
Where did you get your information about Greg and his history with women? Most likely from gossip, which is rarely reliable. Are you sure the women left the company because of their breakups with Greg? Isn’t it possible that their career goals are independent of their dating lives and they went on to bigger and better things? You don’t want to be the toxic person who spreads gossip about your coworkers. If you decide to say something, your only goal is to protect your employee and not spread information about Greg, which brings us to point four.
4. Be careful not to disparage Greg without cause
As far as you know, Greg has never been accused of sexual harassment. (If he was your direct report, you could inquire about sexual harassment charges, but this isn’t possible in most cases for a peer.) If you say bad things about him that are unfounded, they can come back to bite you. What if someone told other people at the company not to eat with you for something that happened in your personal life?
Greg may, himself, accuse you of inappropriate behavior if you tell Julia he’s trouble. This is a place where you can “flip it to test it.” What would you think if someone complained that a woman dated too many men at work? You might see that as sexual harassment. Greg could say the same thing.
5. Be aware that your behaviors might be seen as inappropriate — or even harassment
A 2018 poll by NPR and Ipsos found that nine out of 10 respondents consider it inappropriate to discuss or spread rumors about coworkers’ romantic or sex lives. Chances are, nine out of 10 of your employees will consider your behavior in this case inappropriate too.
If you’re not careful, some might even consider it actionable sexual harassment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits harassment “because of” sex, and several court cases have argued that sexual rumors fit the bill. One recent example is Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., in which a woman was terminated after she complained to human resources that her colleagues had been spreading unfounded rumors about her relationship with a male boss. In February 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that this constitutes a hostile work environment.
Though this case doesn’t exactly relate to your situation — Greg is not Julia’s boss and there are no terminations to contend with — it shows that gossip is serious business in the workplace and not to be trifled with.
6. Remember you’re a manager and need to stay above the fray
Managers need to manage employee performance. If your employee’s performance remains strong, there’s no reason to discuss her personal life. If her performance starts to slack off, you address performance, not romance or anything else personal. Managing people can be difficult, and sometimes our employees make decisions we don’t like. But unless it affects their performance, it’s generally best to stay out of it.
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