Employers may not be able to prohibit coworkers from engaging in “affairs of the heart,” but they should be able to prevent management-level employees from directly supervising their romantic partners.
Had such a rule been on the books in San Luis Obispo County, there would have been no scrambling to determine whether county Supervisor Bruce Gibson violated any policy in delaying disclosure of an extramarital affair with his legislative assistant. The fact that the county had no rule in place — while disappointing — doesn’t absolve Gibson, however.
It requires only a modicum of common sense to recognize the pitfalls of such situations. Gibson exhibited neither common sense nor strength of character by letting this situation continue, though for exactly how long, we don’t know. Gibson has not said when the relationship began, but he did describe it as a “fairly long time.”
However long it was, he should have reported the relationship immediately, so that his assistant could have been reassigned. Ideally, the county shouldn’t need a written policy to spell that out, but this episode points out exactly why one is necessary.
Even if an affair is consensual — and in this case, Supervisor Gibson and his legislative assistant say that it was — there are far too many opportunities for conflicts of interest to arise.
Many situations — performance evaluations, job assignments, approving requests for time off — require a level of objectivity that could be clouded by a personal relationship. Also, if a manager oversees multiple employees, there’s the potential that co-workers could find out about an affair, become resentful of any perceived favoritism, and — well — what a mess.
To be clear, we aren’t calling for a policy that forbids relationships; that would be aheavy-handed infringement on personal rights and would only encourage employees to keep their relationships secret.
But there must be a clear-cut, written policy that requires a management employee, whether elected or appointed, to immediately disclose the development of a romantic relationship with a subordinate employee, so that appropriate action can be taken.
Again, that’s only common sense.
We strongly urge the county to develop such a policy as expeditiously as possible, not as a suggestion or a general guideline, but as a requirement.