In Age of #MeToo, More Companies Crack Down on CEOs', Top Leaders' Consensual Relationships

It is almost Valentine’s Day, which, for many offices, means candy and flowers at the front desk and public proclamations of love to employees. This year, it could also mean navigating tricky relationships at the workplace, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, which so often included allegations of inappropriate conduct at work. While it is virtually impossible for employers to outright ban romantic relationships, companies appear to be instituting policies that limit dating for their top executives, according to data on Chief Executive Officer turnover compiled by global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

“Over the last two years especially, leaders at many companies are taking it upon themselves to create an environment that fosters safety from sexually inappropriate conduct. This includes establishing clearer guidelines on who can date,” said Andrew Challenger, Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

“Boards are instituting zero-tolerance policies on sexual harassment and cracking down on even consensual relationships, particularly between leaders who may have any kind of perceived or actual professional power over the other person,” he added.

In 2017, during which the powerful #MeToo movement effectively began, 12 Chief Executive Officers left their posts due to sexual harassment and misconduct allegations, including Harvey Weinstein, whose fall in October 2017 touched off a wave of investigations into misconduct allegations. That’s compared to three CEOs who left for this reason in each of 2016, 2015, and 2014.

Last year, eight CEOs left their posts due to allegations of sexual misconduct, including two who were forced out after a consensual relationship was discovered, violating company policy. This year has already seen one CEO ousted due to a policy-violating consensual relationship.

“Companies are taking the imbalance in power dynamics very seriously, especially when it comes to their top leaders, who are oftentimes the faces of the companies,” said Challenger.

Meanwhile, studies show harassment is still prevalent in the workplace. A 2018 study conducted by Stop Street Harassment (SSH), with analysis by the UC San Diego Center on Gender Equity & Health, found that 38 percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Companies are responding to this alarming data by putting structures in place that help protect not only their employees, but also their reputation. No one wants to be known for sexual harassment allegations,” said Challenger.

“For those employees who want to pursue a relationship at work, communicating clear policies and guidelines is key to creating a safe environment for successful relationships as well as successful de-couplings,” he added.

One of the most common workplace policies is to ban relationships between managers and their direct reports. Sometimes, companies will require employees to submit love contracts, which disclose the details of their relationship. These policies should be uniformly enforced.

Companies also must consider the consequences of the relationship ending. According to a 2018 CareerBuilder survey, while 31 percent of people who start dating at work end up getting married, another 6 percent have left their job because of a failed relationship. It could be extremely costly to an organization to lose talent in this manner, especially in a tight labor market.

“If the people engaged in a relationship are on the same team, a fallout could cause strife at work and hinder performance. Keeping a strategy in place that allows for moving someone to a different department or remote work could cut down on possible productivity losses,” said Challenger.

It is not surprising that people date co-workers, and company policymakers cannot stop co-workers from dating each other altogether. However, HR leaders can work to develop clear action plans for employees that help them navigate dating at work.