Kissing in the Breakroom

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about employees kissing: 

Two female employees were seen kissing in the break room by a number of other employees. The other employees were offended by this. The department manager talked to the two employees, who initially denied it, but after several employees who witnessed the kissing spoke out about it, the two female employees came clean.

One of the female employees began cursing as she left the break room. The two employees involved have only been with the company 2 days. What are the company’s options. Do we give the two a verbal warning, written warning, or termination?

Signed, What’s Next?

Tina Rowe responded quickly because she is at work on a major project:

What would you do if it two new employees, a man and a woman, were caught kissing?

What if they were two female, long-time employees who had been there a long time and always been effective, but now they are romantically involved?

Here is my thought: Keep this focused on the concern you have about two employees who are new and their attention should be on work.

Consider the work they were hired to do and any issues you had already detected, about not learning the work well. Then, add this issue of poor judgment about kissing or hugging or hand holding, in the workplace. Work relationships are always a source of problems, but especially if poor judgment is used about showing affection for each other publicly. But keep the entire focus for yourself and the other employees, on how you would respond if it was a man and woman.

The first few weeks of any employment is a probationary time, whether it is called that or not, so you would be justified in dismissal. My inclination is that it has created a situation of conflict that will not go away easily, unless the skills of the two employees are so crucial that you can justify keeping them.

If you have an HR section or a legal advisor, they may have thoughts too. Best wishes, Tina

Dear What’s Next: I assume you have a say in how your company responds to the reported show of affection between two employees. The options you list are common as steps in graduated discipline and I expect management has established precedent for what action you will choose. I concur with Associate Workplace Doctor Tina Rowe’s suggestion that in this incident your focus should how to respond to any such behavior between employee coworkers. In the case of these two, it appears from here that they likely young coworkers and not of one with rank over the other. She also stresses that their short time of employment is normally probationary in which new employees are evaluated for ability to do what they are hired to do and their general quality of behavior. Therefore, termination I expect might be determined as justified, bypassing the graduated lesser steps of graduated discipline. However, I am not recommending that unless you evaluate other performance as poor.

Rather my thoughts are on the larger picture. How thoroughly were they briefed regarding conduct within your workplace? If the rules were not clear about fraternization, this incident might prompt formulation of what is and is not acceptable and new employee orientation would spell those out. Kissing in the breakroom or in work areas is usually not customary, and your company and other coworkers report of it proves that. But in this case what was the real harm done?

The fact is that some employees are attracted to other employees and some do not withhold expression of that. Apparently these two or at least one of these two wanted instant gratification and thought the breakroom did not prevent that. The real harm done when attraction goes beyond discreet looking and conversation to physical contact is distraction from what one is assigned to do. I expect your management in light other performance measures of these women and their attitude expressed will determine what options you decide would prove best. I have shared your question with guest respondents whose opinions I now include: One guest respondent with long Human Resource experience, Dan Kearney, quickly replied:

LGBTs are a protected class. Two is the state an at will state. Three I’m sure the company has a policy regarding this and four, they’re probably probationary. But let’s forget about it. They should get a written warning that it is not appropriate behavior in the workplace and if it happens again, they will be terminated. Cause: sexual harassment of fellow employees, lying to mgmt and the biggie moral interpitude. . .I forgot to ask if the two employees were married to each other if so HR doesn’t touch the problem with a 10 foot pole unless they were making out or having sex.”

Another HR specialist, Danica Rice, adds these considerations: this:

This is definitely a touchy one but my best recommendation for this company is if they are going to reprimand the ladies at fault they need to ensure that whatever is documented there is a written policy in place that is supported. These acts the behavior and language could fall under a code of conduct policy that they were in violation of or a form of harassment. I don’t think that the action should warrant immediate termination unless it continued and it was discussed in the initial documentation that if actions continued then it could lead up to termination. The only caveat would be if the company had a 90 day probationary period and the ladies behavior violated this period. Again I don’t think this would still be grounds for immediate termination without at least one warning first.”

Craig Tengler, who was owner/manager of a cluster of restaurants Texas and is building a chain in Florida, stressed that the workplace culture is determined by those employed and management:

My quick response to the situation below: The culture of the company is the most precious living-force you have in any company. I believe it makes you or breaks you.  The 2 girls with a public display of affection issue that have worked 2 days with the company – terminate them.  Done.

Take care of the culture and the culture will take care of the people, the customers, the community and all the business interests they serve.

Legally, I believe that every employee can be terminated within 90 days without cause – – always check with your local HR lawyer if uncertain and ALWAYS document the issues.

Please use this incident as a learning experience for these two individuals and for your workplace. Do let us know how it develops and if our reply helps you decide what comes next. I will forward other guest respondents’ comments when and if they come. Might my signature sentence apply to what you do: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big   WEGOS.

William Gorden