What Happens When an Office Romance Ends?
Q: I’m a middle-management woman in a large company, and I was in a consensual romance for a year with a senior executive who works in the same building but a different division. (I’m not in his reporting chain.)
He recently broke up with me, and I just learned that I’m being transferred to another position in a different locale—same salary but a less-desirable career path, in my opinion. My boss says this is just a coincidence, but I have reason to suspect that my former lover engineered my transfer so that he won’t have to see me around the building. Do I have a legal or ethical right to refuse the transfer?
A: Many companies have written policies that prohibit superiors from having affairs with subordinates in their reporting line—not your situation—because of the risk of favoritism (during the affair) or retribution (when it ends). There is also a risk to the company that the subordinate may later claim that the affair wasn’t truly consensual because of the power imbalance and might bring a sexual-harassment suit.
To avoid all this, some companies require both employees to notify human resources, and the company reserves the right to transfer one or both to positions in a different reporting line. Traditionally, it was the couple’s junior partner (often the woman) who was transferred—or, in the bad old days, fired—when the affair ended. Today, companies are careful that transfers do not disadvantage either employee’s career, but that’s hard to guarantee.
From the facts of your case—an affair outside your supervisory chain—your transfer doesn’t seem necessary or desirable, except to spare the senior executive some awkwardness. By all means, talk to your HR staff about the apparent unfairness of your transfer. If they don’t seem receptive, a lawyer might have to talk to them about employment laws that protect women against discrimination in hiring and career advancement. Your case might fit the latter.
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