Dating in the workplace: where love blooms amidst the water cooler chats and paper jam crises. From an HR perspective, it’s like watching a rom-com unfold, but with potential pitfalls, making it more of a tragicomedy. On this week’s episode of What the Hell Just Happened?! listen to Paul Edwards and Ally Dagnino talk about dating in the workplace, from managers dating employees to employees dating employees to even employees dating patients. What’s the danger here? Let’s get into it.
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Paul: Hey, everybody. On today’s podcast, we’re going to get into dating in the workplace. We’re going to talk about dating in three different contexts. What happens when employees start dating patients? What happens when employees start dating employees? And hopefully some good guidance around what to think about if you’re an owner of a practice and you’re thinking about dating one of your employees, and then we’ll take that off into a very important tangent. What if one of your managers wants to date one of the people that’s a direct report to them? So there’s a little bit of HR nerding going on here, maybe a little bit of pragmatic guidance. I think if you take nothing else away from this, you want to make sure that if any of this stuff is going on around you, and it often is, that you’re documenting your efforts to take the right steps. So if it does blow up, it blows up in their face and not in yours. Maybe that’s a better way to put it. So I hope you enjoy today’s podcast, “Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places.” Welcome everybody to today’s podcast where this is going to be The Dating Podcast. Ally, welcome to the podcast.
Ally: Thanks for having me, Paul.
Paul: So we’re going to be giving out dating advice?
Ally: Yes, it’s kind of –
Paul: Places where you can find compatible people.
Ally: Yeah, this is the Ask Ally Podcast.
Paul: This is the Ask Ally. [laughing]
Ally: So send in your dating questions. No, I’m just kidding. I have no advice there.
Paul: You have no advice?
Ally: [laughing] No, no.
Ally: We’re going to be talking about dating in the workplace.
Paul: It’s a hot topic right now, isn’t it?
Ally: It’s a really hot topic and I’ve been getting tons of questions. Employees dating patients, managers dating employees.
Paul: Let me say this, Ally, before we dive deep in it. This has been going on forever since people started hanging out with one another. Relationships develop between human beings and some of the places where those relationships develop are through work. Right?
Ally: Yes. This is certainly not new. This is coming up a lot lately.
Paul: It has been coming a lot lately. So, you know, for everybody who’s listening, CEDR has a community which any of you can join on Facebook. It’s a group. It’s called HR Base Camp. It’s for managers and owners and so we get lots of good questions there, and then we also always look sort of into the database of questions that are being asked by the 3000 or so practices that CEDR is working with. We look for trends and right now we have a little bit of a trend. I don’t know why, but I just see this trend go up and down. I don’t think that anything in particular is happening. People are just looking for love in all the wrong places.
Ally: I guess so.
Ally: I mean, like you said, this isn’t new at all. This is common enough that, you know, CEDR’s handbooks (CEDR provides handbooks to our members) there’s a dating policy in there that covers this because this happens all the time. But like I said, it’s been a little bit of an uptick lately. Kind of been seeing it in two different areas: employees are starting to date patients, and so employers are wondering what can I do? Can I stop that?
Paul: Can I control that?
Ally: Yeah. Where do I draw the line?
Paul: And what are my liabilities? Kind of maybe from an HR standpoint, what are my liabilities? What’s the other one?
Ally: The other one that we’ve seen come up a little bit more, which, you know, this is where it can get kind of risky, is managers dating employees or fellow doctors who are not the owners dating employees.
Paul: Oh, gotcha. So associates dating employees or somebody in a management –
Ally: Yeah. Associates and managers.
Paul: I’m going to add in, because I’ve been doing this for a long time, and by the way, these calls get routed directly to me, which is a doctor who owns the practice, who is by default a manager, is now dating someone at the practice. We’ll talk about that a little bit towards the end. I want to cover that one maybe last? And we’ll talk about the agreement that can be put in place and how that works or doesn’t work. I think there’s one more little category here, and it’s employees dating employees and I just want to cover that maybe a little bit while we’re talking about it?
Ally: Yeah, absolutely. That one is, honestly, it’s probably the most common. I think it’s just the one that we get the least questions about because it doesn’t from the surface look quite as scandalous or risky. The one we’ve been seeing the most common is employees that are dating patients. I think rightfully so, employers find out about it and they’re like, “Ooh, what’s the danger here?”
Paul: There’s probably a problem here.
Ally: This one’s a little tricky, and I think that’s just because at the end of the day, you can’t tell an adult that they can’t date somebody else. You can tell an adult that they can’t date somebody else, but you ultimately cannot control what they do.
Paul: So ten years ago, maybe longer than that, when I first got one of these complaints or calls, questions, one of the factors in the question was that the employee was dating a male who was separated from his wife for like two years. They were going through a nasty divorce. Their kids came to the practice. Both of those people came to the practice and then lo and behold, the employee and the dad started (I’m calling him the dad. I don’t know any other way to put it) started dating one another and it was blowing up in the face of the practice. I just want to tell you, it was prophetic. It was as if,” Paul, you’re going to get that question. You and your team are going to get this exact question at least 12 times a year for the rest of the existence of CEDR and I was helping other practices. That’s a can of worms, right?
Ally: Absolutely. I think that brings up one of the main things that employers are concerned about, and that’s how does this impact the professionalism within our office? What am I risking? There’s bigger risks involved. Obviously, there’s HIPAA concerns, there’s harassment concerns.
Paul: Well, let’s go for the HIPPA thing real quick. Pillow talk.
Paul: I mean, technically, if you’re working, say, in a Hollywood dental office and Brad Pitt comes in to get his teeth cleaned and you go home that night and tell your spouse, “Brad Pitt was here and good God, his teeth were perfect. It was amazing. He didn’t even need cleaning.” You’ve just violated HIPAA. You’ve told someone that first, he was there and then you’ve actually given them a piece of medical information from it. But we know pillow talk happens. We know it happens. We want to be pragmatic, but I just wanted to point that out.
Ally: Well, and I think the situation that you just described is also one where that would be particularly tricky, like let’s say there are two people involved who are patients. Likeyou said, the ex-wife.
Paul: Yeah. Or ex-husband.
Ally: Yeah. Or ex-husband, however that goes. If you share any information about –
Paul: Their treatment.
Ally: Patient A to patient B, even though they’re married, you are removed from that, you as the employee that is dating.
Ally: HIPAA still applies to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re involved in that family in some other kind of way.
Paul: Your wife was in with the kids today – HIPPA violation.
Ally: Yeah. So it can get really tricky that way.
Paul: Just want to be clear because there’s other HIPAA people out there going, “No, that’s not really a violation.” Well, actually it is. Even though he has a right to know, maybe, he or she has a right to know that the child has been there. That information is not protected. Nonetheless, we aren’t the ones who are supposed to reveal that at somebody’s house over a glass of wine.
Ally: Exactly. The context of that is very different.
Paul: Okay, so sorry, everybody. I just want to kind of talk about that HIPAA thing, but really, it’s a business problem. So can I point this out, Ally? As a business person, my reputation and my referrals are everything to me. I don’t just want us to treat our members well and metaphorically, give them the best treatment that we can possibly get them. I want it to be so good that they can’t resist recommending us to someone else, and let’s make no mistake: backstage, to get that to happen, we have to be really a great team and a great organization. It takes a ton of work and intention by everybody who works here, and it doesn’t happen by mistake. It’s quite intentional and so if something happens, that I didn’t have anything to do with that? If something happens to screw up my relationship with one of our members, who then will not be referring people in or will not be staying with us, it has a direct impact on my bottom line, and that’s what we’re talking about at this dental office. Once these two go to war, we’re going to lose one of these patients. We’re going to lose all of their referrals. We may lose both patients and we live, you know, small business in America lives off of this reputational thing.
Ally: Yeah, and I do want to point out, we’re talking about a dental office, right now, but this isn’t just for dental offices. That might be what CEDR deals with the most, but we have members that are in other industries and like you said, any small business, a lot of these are within smaller communities where that word travels fast. It can have a huge impact on how you’re perceived by the community.
Paul: People give it meaning.
Ally: Your bottom line. Even if it’s all rumors, you know, rumors start. They don’t know the full story, but that doesn’t really matter.
Paul: Right. As a business owner, I want to say to that employee, “I just want to be clear with you that the raises and benefits and everything comes from the income that flows from the treatment that we or the business that we do with the people we work with. When we do something to mess with that, it also messes with my ability to be able to give raises and to be able to fund that sort of thing.” And I don’t think all employees think about that. But the heart wants what the heart wants, Ally.
Ally: The heart wants what the heart wants and all of that to say that at the end of the day, if you find out about an employee and a patient relationship and like we mentioned before, our handbooks have a policy. Everyone who’s listening, your handbook should have a policy that addresses this. You can discourage the relationship. Your handbook policy can say relationships between patients or clients or whoever you’re serving are discouraged. You can put in your policy, “Hey, you’re required to disclose this to us if it does come up.” But it is really hard to if they do disclose it and you do discourage it and it still happens.
Paul: There’s several states that say if an employee’s doing something away from work and it’s legal, you can’t take action against them. So if they’re attending a political rally that you don’t like, you’re not supposed to take action against them. They’re protected in that way.
Ally: Yeah. So it’s good to know what to be concerned about, like we just mentioned, how that can impact your business in the larger picture. This might come up and you might not be able to do anything about it in the moment, but it’s good to be prepared.
Paul: You sit them down and you talk to them and you tell them what we just said. “Look, you need to be careful here because you’re dating someone,” and I would tell them, “You’re just skating on thin ice right now because these are all the ramifications, what can go on. So I’m asking you to please be cognizant of it, but you must not reveal any PHI when you’re talking to them and you need to be incredibly careful about talking to them about their own family. Like if they have questions, what I’m asking you is you don’t answer them. If he’s got questions about his child’s treatment, send that to me. I’ll determine whether or not we’re going to answer that and how we’re going to answer that. And it’s going to be confidential. We’re going to protect the PHI. We’re going to follow the rules around that sort of stuff.”
Ally: It’s a lot of boundaries. Setting really clear boundaries, regardless of the relationship that you may have with this patient outside of work, when it comes to being in the office about things that are related to the office, that relationship basically doesn’t exist.
Paul: Okay, so let’s talk about employee to employee. Kind of on the same level. We’ll just touch on this briefly. First of all, full disclosure here, when I started this company, I started it with my then wife, who was an amazing human being, continues to be an amazing human being. I think in the end, us working together so much and then going home and being together so much was a little bit too much together. I don’t think it was helpful. That’s just a side note. Just want to share that personal thing. I have also hired spouses of people who work here where they’ve come to me and said, “My wife or my husband needs a job and I think he’d be a good fit for this.” And that has worked out to varying degrees, but it has put me in an awful position sometimes as a manager and as an owner when I wanted to let one go and I know there’s going to be an impact on the other. So we have these really deep conversations saying, “Look, I can hire him or I can hire her, but if this goes south, I have to do what’s right for the business.”
Then I’ve had employees come to me or come to HR, following our policy and say, “Hey, we’re seeing each other.” I honestly don’t have a problem with that, especially if they are cross departmental and one’s not managing the other. There’s not much I can do about it. I don’t even really try to discourage it to a great degree, but I got to tell you, I don’t love it. I’m going to flashback to 20 years ago when I owned the live music venues, which I bring up every now and then, and the bartenders got into – the heart wants what the heart wants – the bartenders are hanging out after work and they’re doing what bartenders do, and then I get an inkling that, you know, one of the guys, one of the girls or even, you know, whatever. So two of them are getting ready to date or they have already hooked up and it looks like they’re forming a relationship. The conversation I would have with them is, “This is going to blow up. You all are going to break up one day while you’re still working here. You’re going to be incredibly angry, and one of you is going to come to me and say, “I can’t work with that other person.” And I just want you to know when you do that, I’m going to schedule you with that other person every single shift until you two work it out. You are not going to change the way I run this business and who works what shifts because you two can’t get along. Are you sure you two want to? Are you sure you want to date one another?” And of course, the answer is always a resounding, “It won’t happen.”
Ally: Not to us!
Paul: Not to us.
Ally: I want to know how many of those couples are still together. If you’re listening, let us know.
Paul: If you’re listening. I’m trying to think about right now, I’m thinking none.
Ally: Yeah. [laughing]
Paul: None of them are.
Ally: You were right.
Paul: Yeah, I was right all along.
Ally: Yeah, I think with the, like you said, the employee to employee. I think most employers don’t really discourage it as aggressively as they might with a patient or with a supervisor to an employee.
Paul: Yeah. And the smaller the team, the harder it is. So I had a pretty small team when I owned just the single venue and so it was all right there. It’s a little easier over at CEDR when I’m running that because we’ve got 32 people, we’ve got five different departments and you know, it’s really not generally a problem. Hopefully none of the employees will be listening to my podcast. Okay. What’s the next one that we need to get into?
Ally: The next one is employees dating managers.
Ally: And that one that things can get a little bit a little bit riskier there. There’s some power dynamics that kind of skew things a little bit.
Paul: Well, the answer’s no.
Paul: So if a manager comes, if they disclose or I discover, right? If I discover that a manager is dating someone who they’re directly managing, one or both have to go. The answer’s no.
Paul: Yeah, just. I can’t. I can’t. You can’t have a manager over the top of an employee and has control over their life, their advancement, and it’s just a bad idea.
Ally: Yeah, it’s just a bad idea, I think, from a lot of different angles. I was going to say that unlike with dating a patient where you can say, “Oh, this is discouraged,” but you can’t do much about it, it is okay for you to put in your policy, “Hey, we totally do not allow management dating.”
Paul: Absolutely not.
Ally: It’s off the table.
Paul: If we find out before you tell us, then that’s going to be a problem. Now, I might be able to say, “Well, okay, I’m going to change who manages that person and I’m no longer going to let you be responsible.” But in a small business, even a business our size, which is still a very small business, that’s almost impossible to do. So I can’t remove anybody out of the line of fire.
Ally: Yeah, that’s not always a feasible option for, like you said, the kind of businesses that we’re normally –
Paul: So it’s a hard no, when it comes to one of my managers wanting to date one of my employees or one of my employees wanted to date one of my managers. It’s just a hell no. Now, now comes the sticky part, because we are working with humans. So we have the HR side of things. We have the human side of things because we are working with humans. Sometimes relationships and feelings develop between, say, an owner who by by default is a manager, even if the owner has a manager running their practice, you’re still the manager as the owner and, and they start to date an employee and it always kind of follows the same fact pattern, you know, close proximity together all the time. Both are available. Sometimes both aren’t supposed to be available. That’s another issue unto itself. The problem here is, is that the answer should still be hell no. I can’t make you do anything as an advisor, you know, as an HR advisor. So what we default to is an agreement. We do this with employee to employee. We still put this kind of agreement in place that just kind of outlines that if you’re not feeling good about this or you’re feeling any pressure, and several other things are in the agreement, you let somebody know that that’s going on.
Ally: Yeah, it’s basically like a consensual relationship.
Paul: Yeah. But if we apply this manager/owner to employee at some point, I learned and so did one of our members, that it’s not worth the paper it’s written on under certain circumstances.
Ally: Yeah. I mean ultimately, it’s kind of to like, give yourself peace of mind that you went through the process and say, “Hey, you know, well, this employee did say that this is consensual,” but if there is a harassment claim, if something comes up –
Paul: All they have to say is, when asked, “Why did you sign this? You signed this agreement. You signed this thing acknowledging that you had all these things, these ways that you could report that you were feeling uncomfortable. Why doesn’t this kind of negate your complaint that’s happening now?” And the answer is, “I felt like if I didn’t sign it, that my job would be at risk.”
Paul: Even though that may not be the case, it is what they say at the time that the upset occurs, a year, two years, six years, whatever later.
Ally: And it’s those power dynamics, it’s really easy to say, “Hey, I was in a position where I was being supervised by this person and I felt that if I didn’t agree to this or I felt that if I didn’t go out with them or do whatever I was going to – “
Paul: That’s all they have to say and now you’re in a fight. Now we talk about these fights, these wars that business owners can get in, and you could even maybe win it with that agreement. Maybe you could bring enough stuff forward to argue against the demand letter that’s being sent to you, which, by the way, is going to have like three years of their pay, forward pay in it and all kinds of damages in the demand letter. So the point of all that is that you might win, but the cost of that win, like if you prevail, you have to go to court, you have to go through all these different things. It’s going to cost you tens of thousands of dollars. So that’s not a win to me.
Ally: No, it’s not a win and oftentimes, you know, you allow this manager and employee relationship to happen. It lasted six weeks and now you are in years of this fight. You’ve spent so much money on this fight. It’s a lot safer for you to just shut that down like you said from the beginning.
Paul: You need to try to avoid it to the best you can. If you’re not going to avoid it, just know that this is the risk that you’re taking. This really is the risk that you’re taking. Now, should you not put the agreement in place because I said it can hardly be worth the paper that it was written on? No, you should put it in place. You should take every step. You two should work this out and figure it out to the best of your ability. I go and speak at events where there’s a separate room of people who are doctors and their spouses and it’s not always a man. I’m just saying all kinds of people get into relationships with people they work with, and they work together. I mean, they started off working together. I used to be his hygienist. I used to be the manager. We started dating. We got married. Now I’m this to the practice or whatever that looks like. So I’m not saying that it can’t work out. I’m just saying that it’s incredibly, incredibly risky.
Ally: Yeah. I mean, not every relationship ends up being an HR horror story for sure. [laughing]
Paul: Yeah they do.
Ally: They can happen, but I think it’s really important for employers to know all the bases that they should have covered and what they should be doing to try to protect their business at most, if things do go wrong.
Paul: I want you going in wide eyed, you know, open minded, understanding what’s going on. Well, I don’t know that we helped a lot here other than just being like, you just got to be careful and be intentional and remember that there’s employees and patients and there’s not a lot you can do about that, but there is some stuff that you should do when that occurs.
Ally: I think that’s kind of…I think we did help here because I do see people who didn’t do anything and who are contacting us after the couple has been dating for a year and they’re like, “Hey!” So I think that it’s something not everyone is aware of, the steps they have to take. Like the moment that you find out, don’t let this be something that just –
Paul: And there’s a value of documenting all of this, putting in agreements, putting in understandings, talking to the employee about the policy, ensuring that you’ve told them, “Hey, you’re not supposed to reveal any of this information.” All the things that we talked about, there’s a lot of value in that because if you do catch a complaint or a lawsuit or HHS gets a complaint about a HIPAA breach or something like that, you need to be able to show that you took steps to mitigate it to the best you can and those steps that you can show can actually really help you out a lot. I’m not saying they can always make everything go away, but they can sure mitigate damages and penalties and all kinds of stuff like that. So, yeah, okay. Heart wants what the heart wants, Ally. I believe that the title of this podcast is going to be Love and Seeking Love in All the Wrong Places. That should get some clicks. [laughing]
Ally: [laughing] Yeah, I think so.
Paul: Ally, thanks.
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