Employee relationships, hair discrimination & social media friendships

I just found out one of my employees is dating a patient. Is there anything I can do to discourage this?

The legal side of things: There must be something in the air, because we’ve received some version of this question quite a bit lately. We even covered employee relationships in a recent episode of What the Hell Just Happened?!

Legally, there’s not much you can do to stop two consenting adults from dating, even if it has the potential to negatively impact your business. You can (and should) have a handbook policy that discourages employees from dating patients, but ultimately, an employer can’t restrict off the clock employee conduct.

Now for the human approach: If you can’t outright prohibit the relationship, what can you do?

Like we said above, you should have a handbook policy that makes it clear that romantic relationships with patients are strongly discouraged and that if a romantic relationship does form, it must be disclosed to management. Being aware of the relationship is key to being able to protect your business from the potential fallout. There’s nothing worse than being in the dark about why your front desk manager and a patient are fighting in the lobby (just an example, but it’s entirely possible).

Your obligation as an employer is to keep your workplace safe and prevent a conflict of interest. Remind the employee that their relationship shouldn’t impact the way the patient (or anyone else) is treated in the office and that they’re still required to follow the practice’s confidentiality rules. Under no circumstances should they share any protected information with the patient, regardless of their relationship status.

There’s no guarantee that the relationship will work out. If things go south, there may be tension in the office and you will likely lose a patient. Employee-patient relationships can also impact your practice’s image, for better or for worse. We know a lot of the employers we speak to operate in small cities or towns where this might be a bigger deal than in a large metropolis.
Unfortunately, that’s part of the risk. If issues arise in the workplace that stem from an employee’s relationship (or breakup) with a patient, reach out to an HR expert.

I’d like for my staff with long hair to all wear their hair in a slicked back bun. Can I include this in our dress code policy?

The legal side of things: Tread lightly here. This might seem like an innocuous request, but it can land you in hot water.

As we’re sure many of you know, the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act has been rapidly popping up in cities and states over the last few years. Even notoriously employer friendly states like Texas have passed a statewide version of the Act.

The Act prohibits discrimination based on race related hairstyles. Keeping this in mind, requiring a specific hairstyle for all employees doesn’t take into account different hair textures and protected hairstyles (braids, locs, etc.) that employees wear. Enforcing a specific standard can open the door for a discrimination claim from employees who aren’t able to easily comply.

Even if your city or state hasn’t passed a version of the CROWN Act, we recommend following this same guidance. There could be a case for discrimination even without the CROWN Act in place.

Now for the human approach: None of this means that you can’t have grooming standards at work. You just have to be sure that there’s a legitimate health or safety concern for them and they’re applied consistently to all employees.

A “slicked back bun” might be a bit too specific, but you can still require that employees with long hair have their hair pulled back and out of their face. That’s a standard requirement in many industries. Using more general language like this makes it easier for all employees to comply and lessens the chance of the policy being seen as discriminatory.

You can learn more about hair discrimination and the CROWN Act in
this blog and on episode 213 of What the Hell Just Happened?! CEDR members can find CROWN state updates in backstageHR.

Is it okay for management to be friends with employees on social media?

The legal side of things: There’s no law that says managers can’t be friends with employees on social media. That said, having access to subordinates’ social media posts can open a can of worms that comes with legal issues you might not expect.

The National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ right to discuss their pay and conditions of employment, including online. One of the risks of management being social media friends with someone they supervise is that they may stumble upon an employee venting and want to reprimand the employee for speaking negatively about the business. We see this happen all the time. But nine times out of ten, that’s not legal. You can read more about what you can and can’t take action on here or read more about the National Labor Relations Act here.

Social media friendships also open the door for management to learn private information about the employee. One of the most common scenarios we deal with is managers seeing pregnancy announcements online before the employee has told them about it. This could also apply to seeing a post about an employee’s medical condition that they haven’t disclosed to management.

Knowing those things without the employee having revealed them at work puts management in a tricky spot. You may feel like you’re supposed to do something with this information (offer an accommodation, ask about their plans for maternity leave, etc.), but the truth is that until the employee shares this information with you, you can’t.

Now for the human approach: With few exceptions, employee’s social media use falls under the category of off-duty conduct that employers are limited to take action around. Once someone in a position of authority (manager, owner, CEO, etc.) has access to an employee’s social media account(s), they’re getting a glimpse into what the employee is doing outside of work hours and they may or may not like what they see.

It’s also just a glimpse into their life. You aren’t going to get the full story from an Instagram post, which can lead to assumptions, misunderstandings, and potential National Labor Relations Act and HR violations. Say your employee takes a sick day but you see a picture of them at a park or coffee shop that same day. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume the employee lied about needing a sick day and want to call them out on it.

But what if they had multiple doctor’s appointments throughout the day and the park was a quick stop? What if they were caring for a child or dependent (which is a permitted use of sick leave in most states)? Even if your state doesn’t have protections around sick leave, this can be an awkward conversation to have and again, may inadvertently cause you to learn private information about the employee.

The bottom line - just because managers and employees can be friends on social media doesn’t mean they should be. If they are, make sure managers are fully aware of what they can and can’t do based on what they may see and employee protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

Related listening for extra credit: What the Hell Just Happened podcast episode 407: Using Social Media in Candidate Screenings

Sep 25, 2023

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance based on applicable local, state and/or federal U.S. employment law that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

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