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By: Dr. John T. Self

Dating An Employee is Never a Good Idea
 

At the time, it seems simple: You're attracted to someone at work, and he or she is attracted to you. You share the same hours and some of the same interests. You're both responsible adults. But getting intimate with an employee is deceptively complicated. It can lead to everything from a loss of respect among your staff to a sexual harassment lawsuit. In short, it can be one of the most serious threats to a restaurant manager's career.

Many food service environments have all the "wrong" ingredients; a server/bartender staff made up of charismatic employees, late nights and/or long hours, and a limited social life outside of work. And if you pride yourself on having a hands-on management style and being very personal and casual with your employees, then you probably know more about your employees' personal lives than even their loved ones. They probably think they know a great deal about you, too.

Add in that you write the schedules, assign stations, issue reprimands and write-ups: In other words, you control the situation.

Do you see a potential problem?

At some point in your career, you may find it very tempting to have a drink, then date, or (in corporate language) fraternize with your employees. It might start by accidentally meeting after work when you've stopped in for a drink. It may be at a casual get-together when several employees urge you to join them after a tough shift. Whatever the circumstances, it often starts innocently enough.

Even more ominous is when you find yourself attracted to one of your employees, but you believe it won't affect your work environment. You may think you'll be able to keep it a secret. After all, you are both mature and responsible. No one will find out.

This is a fantasy. First, rumors will start. (There are no secrets in the restaurant business.) Eventually, someone will confront you. Panic will set in because you will have no idea what to do about it.

There are really only two possible outcomes when you date an employee. One is that you will fall in love and live happily ever after. Given that even 50% of marriages end in divorce, how likely is this relationship to succeed? The second and most probable outcome is that you will break up. How difficult is this to deal with?

Think about the worst breakup that you've had with a significant other. Pretty bad wasn't it? Now picture that happening in front of everyone at work. At best, you'll be pitied by the staff members who are sympathetic. At the worst, you'll be the villain. And nevermind the potential for humiliating or embarrassing "episodes"...

To make matters worse, the employee could go to your general manager or corporate manager and accuse you of sexual harassment. She (or he) could say that she was only going out with you because she feared she would have been fired if she didn't.

You'll be angry. You'll be shocked. Even if your relationship was totally consenting, you will most probably lose the sexual harassment lawsuit. Think about it; once you start dating, your employee could also claim that he or she feared losing his or her job unless you kept seeing each other. Think about what that will do to your credibility and all of your hopes and aspirations of promotion.

When I was vice president of operations of a regional restaurant chain, this sort of scenario played itself out twice. In the first instance, a female server faxed a letter to the corporate office describing a situation where an assistant manager was giving preferential treatment to another server. She wrote that all the servers knew about it and were tired of it, and wanted to know what were we going to do to stop it.

This turned out to be particularly bad because the manager in question was married, and not to this server. The manager was nearly lost his job. We finally wound up transferring him to another unit, after a severe write-up that documented the incident was placed in his personnel file. It also stated that if there were even a hint of another incident, he would be terminated. This obviously set the manager back, tremendously wounding his credibility. There is no telling how much damage this did to his relationship with his wife.

The other instance was when I received a page at home one evening. When I returned the call to one of the restaurants, the general manager said that one of the female servers was there with her mother demanding that some action be taken against one of the assistant managers who, she said, had been constantly harassing her. After listening to her, I assured her that I would look into this, that actions would be taken and I would call her ASAP.

I immediately called the assistant manager in and talked to him. Asked him questions regarding the server. He said that he couldn't believe this was happening to him. He said that the worst that could have happened is that she could have misunderstood some of the things that he had said to her. He was pale, incredulous and shaken. I wound up transferring him to another city, but just as he was about to leave, he resigned. He said that he knew that every manager in the company would know what happened and that he would rather start fresh with another company.

Don't allow yourself to get trapped in this lose/lose situation. Keep it professional.

About the author:  John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academe, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.

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