How to handle sexual misconduct at work

Flickr user Victor1558

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I am an HR manager with a multinational corporation. Yesterday I received information about two employees having sex in the bathroom. Several staff members observed them, and apparently this is not the first episode -- just the first time I've been informed. At what point do we terminate them?

I'm thinking termination should have occurred as soon as their clothing was back on (I'd hate to make anyone walk out to their car in the nude.)

Where is the employees manager (managers?) in this mess? And why did we get to the point where a couple can engage in sexual activity in the bathroom more than once and have people fretting over if they should be fired? Somehow we've gotten into this, "Oh no! It's about sex! I better not say anything lest I be thought a prude/bigot/whatever!" attitude.

Well, I'm fine with people labeling me whatever they want to because here is my rule: If you engage in any sexual activity on company property, you will be terminated. Not, we'll review the situation, see if there was a good reason for your actions and put a note in your file. Terminated.

Such conduct falls under "gross misconduct" in my book because it is "an objectionable action that is willful and cannot be described as a mistake or an act of negligence." No one accidentally has sex in the bathroom. It is inappropriate. It demonstrates that the participants lack any sense of propriety. And if they are willing to get it on at work in a publicly accessible location, they are clearly dumb as rocks.

But what if one (or both!) of them are star performers at work? Let me ask you this question: If they had both been killed in a car crash on the way to the office this morning, would the company have to shut down? If the answer to that question is no, then they are not big enough stars to be saved from termination.

The only area where I would exercise caution is if the relationship is not an equal one. That is, does it involve a senior VP and an accounts-payable clerk? Then I would investigate if the sexual activity was consensual or if the VP had bullied the clerk into it. Peers? Out the door.

Now, if this was about two coworkers dating or a boss dating a subordinate and they were engaging in sexual activity outside of work, it would be a different answer. The answer there is: What is your policy on this matter? What? You don't have one? You should.

At minimum, relationships between managers and their direct reports (or their direct reports' direct reports) should be banned. Some companies ban relationships between employees, period. Some employers only ban dating within a worker's department. I don't really have a strong opinion on that. But you must have a policy and enforce it. If dating is acceptable, then you ignore such relationships. If dating is prohibited, then you mete out the consequences detailed in your policy.

Yet, just as you don't need a policy that says, "spreading tuna fish all over the hallway will result in termination!" you don't need a policy that says, "having sex in the bathroom will result in termination." Some things are just off limits, and this is one of them.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Victor1558

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