25 Pages Posted: 28 Jan 2006
Working is a serious business. Management requires that employees act rationally while on the job. This means that workers are expected to compartmentalize their on-duty and off-duty lives. At work, they should devote themselves to the tasks of the job and avoid thinking as much as possible about personal issues.
Compartmentalization is becoming increasingly more onerous. Today many people form personal relationships at work with co-workers, supervisors, subordinates or clients. As Americans are getting married at an older age and are working longer hours in less sex-segregated work environments, it is inevitable that some workplace interaction will go beyond being purely professional. This phenomenon is a cause of concern to managers, because the professional and personal spheres are beginning to blur. Employers are now confronted with situations in which employees are not only preoccupied with personal issues arising from outside of work, but with personal interactions with other members of the organization during working hours. This situation threatens traditional ideas of what should take place at work.
In an attempt to manage this problem, employers have instituted a variety of rules and policies that regulate the extent to which employees are allowed to personally interact with one another. In this paper I discuss examples of two types of regulations that employers have been gradually implementing, antinepotism rules and nonfraternization policies. In both cases the proffered rationale for these rules is based on interests other than the employer's desire to keep personal relationships out of the workplace. Supposedly, antinepotism rules are about issues of favoritism and conflicts of interest, while nonfraternization policies are a means to fight the "war on sexual harassment." Both of these are worthy causes, but the tools forged to pursue them are often unwieldy and overly broad.
These self-imposed regulations are disquieting to advocates of workers' rights, partly because they threaten employees' right to privacy. Such regulations may have the effect of forcing employees to choose between their job and intimate relationship. This issue is particularly alarming since it is usually the woman who eventually gives up her job when heterosexual couples are forced to make a choice, as in the case of no-spouse rules (applied to couples working together and planning to get married). Therefore, these facially neutral policies disparately impact the employment opportunities of women, and are arguably discriminatory under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The main argument in this paper is that we must abandon traditional ideologies about work, such as the now-rooted dichotomy between professional and personal, and the unsubstantiated belief that mixing the two is inevitably bad for business. The proliferation of broad policies banning joint employment of spouses or fraternization among co-employees should be replaced with more reasonable rules or standards, which balance better between employers' business interests and individual autonomy.
Keywords: Work, discrimination, antinepotism rules, fraternization, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Rabin-Margalioth, Sharon, Love at Work. Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 2006. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=878472