Can you get fired for dating a coworker?

Most employment is generally at-will, so employers can fire an employee for dating a co-worker. However, if the co-worker you’re dating was not fired, the employer firing you could be considered gender discrimination, and you can file a lawsuit.

Author: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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No employment law makes it unlawful to date a coworker so long as the relationship does not violate employment law on sexual harassment in the workplace. Romantic relationships are typically forbidden in the workplace due to the potential conflict and legal repercussions that may arise from dating coworkers. Before dating your coworker, check your company’s employee handbook policy to ensure no company policy prohibits coworkers. You can get fired if you’re dating a co-worker and the relationship is a disruption at work. When romance is in the workplace, an employer may be faced with distracted employees, gossips, and lovers’ bicker. After reading this article, please contact our California employment attorney for a free consultation on coworkers dating at work.

For example, would you be distracted if you saw your coworkers dating at work playing footsies under the table?

Relationships in the Workplace

Workplaces romances are naturally going to happen, but some employers may not like coworkers dating one another. From the viewpoint of an employer, if two employees at an office begin dating one another, it could lead to allegations of favoritism or a conflict of interest. However, under California law, an employee has a right to privacy when it comes to participating in lawful activity off the clock and off premises. This lawful activity includes dating coworkers.

But there are exceptions to coworker dating. In California, there is precedent that implies employers can ban certain types of relationships in the workplace. It may argued that romantic relationships can threaten workplace morale, security, efficiency, or supervision depending on the business. If the employer determines a relationship to be a legitimate threat to his or her business, he or she may be in the right to prohibit workplace relationships.

There is, for example, the issue of employees in supervisory positions dating subordinate coworkers. This creates legitimate problems for a workplace because in such a relationship there is an imbalance of power. This imbalance could create problems in the workplace, including the supervisor giving the subordinate unfair preference or engaging in favoritism. If the dating relationship does not work out, it is possible that the subordinate might accuse his or her superior of sexual harassment or discrimination. That kind of situation could result in the firing of the supervisor if the employer has a policy forbidding the dating of subordinates. In this case, the employer’s right to avoid business conflicts outweighs his supervisor’s right to privacy (a relationship with the subordinate).

Example A: Elizabeth is a supervisor at a company that produces CGI graphics for film studios. When she is put in charge of a new employee, Robbie, she can’t help but blush. Robbie is tall, blond, and gorgeous, as well as being around Elizabeth’s own age. Little does Elizabeth know, but Robbie feels the same way when he sees her. Two months later, Elizabeth and Robbie are dating. Because Elizabeth is Robbie’s supervisor, they try to keep their relationship hidden and not apparent at work. Still, Elizabeth can’t help but make Robbie her favorite, praising his designs and choosing them over other employees’. One day, another employee catches Robbie kissing Elizabeth in the parking lot. He tells the manager of the company, Lionel, who calls Elizabeth into his office. He explains that a supervisor-employee relationship is inappropriate, because not only is there a power imbalance between her and Robbie, but she is giving preferential treatment to one employee over others. To preserve fairness in the workplace, Lionel fires Elizabeth.

Example B: Rory works at a bookstore. When new employee Jess starts, she can’t help but fall for him. He’s a bad boy with a love for Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut. It isn’t long before Rory and Jess start dating. When the owner of the shop spots Rory and Jess hanging around town together, he puts two and two together. He calls Rory in to see him and says, “Look, you’re a nice girl. But I’m worried that your relationship with Jess is affecting your work performance.” The thing is, Rory’s work performance has been entirely unchanged by her dating Jess. She says so. Her employer sighs and says that he has to let her go, because he doesn’t approve of employees dating. This is potentially unlawful, because in California, an employer can’t fire employees simply for dating, especially when there is no threat to the business, as in Rory’s case.

Protections for Employees

In California, an employee cannot be fired simply for dating a coworker. On the one hand, employers are allowed to have policies against flirting on the clock. That said, their say over what one does off-the-clock and outside work is limited. If an employer means to fire an employee, he or she has to have another rationale beyond the relationship, such as it causing a legitimate problem for the business or performance. However, if a romantic relationship in the workplace does not pose any legitimate threat to the business, and the dating coworkers behave appropriately at work, then an employer does not have grounds to fire either employee. If the issue were taken to court as a wrongful termination lawsuit, the dating coworkers would prevail in a lawsuit.

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