What Can I Be Asked About Off-Duty Relationship?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about query as to employees’ intimacy:

If a supervisor is dating a subordinate employee and there is no departmental policy in place prohibiting relationships, does the employer have the right to question the two employees about their off-duty conduct in regards to the level of intimacy between the two consenting adults? Can they launch an investigation two plus years after the relationship ended, with no complaints being made by either party. After launching the investigation can the employer ask the involved individuals if you were having a sexual relationship?

Signed, On The Hot Seat

DearĀ On The Hot Seat:

This is an issue for which you should certainly consult an attorney. I will assume you are the supervisor and you were involved with a subordinate. There could be many reasons your employer is investigating this matter–and all of them could result in trouble for you. If you think there is a chance you will be harmed by your responses and you are concerned about the appropriateness of the questions, an attorney can advise you about how best to respond–or could ask to be present during an interview.

Keep in mind that in many cases, your employer is not constrained legally by what they can ask, as police are, because you are not being investigated about a crime. They aren’t obligated to let you have an attorney present when you are interviewed. On the other hand, there are questions that would fall under federal or state regulations and an employer would be prohibited from asking those–unless they can show a work link that is compelling.In addition, if you are uncooperative, they may decide to fire you over it. But, an attorney may be able to intervene about any action of that nature, based on what questions were asked, how the refusal to answer is given and other aspects of the case. Since you are wondering about whether or not your employer can investigate, let’s consider your situation. You didn’t describe what all of this is about, but some general thoughts apply.

Whether or not there were specific rules in place about subordinate-supervisor relationships, the employee involved can allege harm based on feeling coerced into a relationship or having problems at work after the relationship ended.Another employee may allege that the relationship kept that employee from advancing or in some other way it created a harmful situation.The employer could discover a problem at work and decide it is related to an outside relationship and want to know the nature of that relationship.

There is no specific time limit on these things, and based on how serious the issue is, several years could have gone by. Whatever the situation, it sounds to me as though someone could be in jeopardy of losing his or her job or could be named in a lawsuit or penalized in some other way. At the very least, questions could be asked that go over the boundaries of what is needed for the investigation, or that are embarrassing to answer.Any of those situations are reason enough to talk to an attorney right away.

If you have a work interview coming up about it, I suggest you say you will need to postpone it until you talk to an attorney. If you have already made some statements, write down what you were asked and what you answered and take those to the attorney you work with. Don’t talk to anyone else at work about this until you have talked to an attorney. That way you don’t have to worry about something inadvertently being misquoted or misunderstood.I don’t mean to imply that you are in serious trouble. But, when your private life is being questioned in this way and you were involved in a relationship that has a potential for problems, it’s best to be cautious about anything you say and do. An attorney could at least give you a free phone consultation to let you know where you stand right now and what your legal needs might be.Best wishes with this situation.

Tina Lewis Rowe