When employees blur the line between their private life and professional life, it can be problematic for employers. In two recent Minnesota arbitration decisions, the issue of romantic relationships was central to employment consequences for two police officers. Both cases were heard by neutral arbitrators, and the actions taken by the employer were affirmed.
Fraternization: A romantic relationship which developed between a City of Champlin Police Sergeant and a patrol officer, eventually lead to the Sergeant’s demotion. The romantic relationship developed over a period of time, which led the City to give the Sergeant the option to resign his supervisory position or end the relationship. The Sergeant declined either option. The City subsequently adopted a formal Fraternization Policy. As a result of the new policy, the Sergeant was involuntarily demoted.
At arbitration, the Employer successfully argued the romantic relationship could lead to “…lawsuits, claims of preferential treatment, morale problems and safety problems in the department.” The Union claimed the Employer was prohibited from retroactively applying the Fraternization Policy. The arbitrator dismissed the Union’s argument stating, “All new policies have to have a starting point and the Fraternization Policy was enacted for safety, liability, and morale concerns, which are justifiable reasons for ‘retroactively’ applying the Policy to the Grievant’s romantic relationship, which caused the Policy to be promulgated in the first place.” As a result of the arbitrator’s decision, the Sergeant exchanged his supervisory stripes for romance.
Love Gone Bad: In another arbitration decision, a patrol officer for the City of Prior Lake was terminated from employment for his actions surrounding a failed romantic relationship. The officer had recently broken up with his fiancée, when he returned to her residence in uniform and on-duty. He used a key he still had to let himself in the house, and then broke down a bedroom door where his former fiancée was hiding with another man. The officer left the residence, and offered to pay for the broken door. He was convicted of two misdemeanors and terminated from employment. The arbitrator noted the conduct of the officer “…undercuts the mission and trust in a police department when an officer on duty violates the law and shows bad judgment resulting in abuse of authority and a failure to exercise discretion.”
Generally, when romance and work collide, the case concerns off-duty conduct. These two arbitration cases clearly indicate romance at work, or romance which leads to conduct during work, can have significant employment consequences. Employers clearly have a right and an obligation to consider the impact of romances on workplaces.