A new survey just issued by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers revealed that two-thirds of divorce lawyers cite Facebook as the “primary source” of evidence used today in divorce proceedings. Not just for the expected photographic evidence, but also for statements and posts that are ultimately used to contradict positions taken in custody and other related proceedings. According to The Guardian, Facebook is cited as a “leading cause of relationship trouble.”
One could save the chicken-or-the-egg argument for another day, to debate whether Facebook causes the breakdown of relationships or whether it is the people using Facebook who simply have another outlet to say or do the questionable things they might otherwise say or do. One thing is clear, however, when it comes to these failed relationships: They have to start somewhere.
Wikipedia defines “fraternization” as “conducting social relations with people who are actually unrelated and/or of a different class[.]” Employers have wrestled with the notion of attempting to regulate office relationships over the years, as the number of hours spent in the workplace – and the number of women as members of the workforce – have risen steadily. Add to that the meteoric rise in social media use by employees (both inside and outside of the workplace), and it is not difficult to see the impact that social relationships between co-workers can have on your company and the workplace in general.
Employers have a business interest in wanting to regulate fraternization and office relationships. For example, such relationships have the potential to decrease morale among other employees who may cite favoritism as a negative byproduct of an office relationship between supervisor and subordinate. Also, there may be potential liability for your company if a relationship sours and one participant claims that the relationship had always been unwelcomed or coerced. On the other hand, employees cite a myriad of concerns against anti-relationship policies, such as violations of privacy, disparate enforcement, and, in some locations outside of New York, a violation of a legal activities law.
Employer Take Away: What should you as an employer take away from this development? Wherever your company falls in this debate, you should not ignore the ever-changing impact that social media has on the relationships between and among the people who work for you. If you do intend to institute a form of anti-fraternization policy (or if you already have one), you should consider the following points:
(1) Make sure your policy is clear about what is and is not prohibited. Are you prohibiting all romantic relationships between co-workers, or just those between employees in the same department or between supervisor and subordinate?
(2) Make sure your policy does not violate the law (by intent or impact). Are you including sweeping bans on fraternization for the purpose of discussing company working conditions (see recent NLRB settlement), or effectively banning marriage outside the workplace? Does your policy require that women be the ones to have to choose to transfer departments?
(3) Make sure any policy is consistently enforced. Are you favoring relationships for those who are bigger company “producers”, or those who are related somehow to top company officials, or those not in a traditional protected class?