©2010 Lou Reiter, Co-Director, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (llrmi.com). Recently LLRMI/PATC polled members of the Public Safety community on issues of nepotism and fraternization within their agencies.  Within one week over 2700 responses were received – comprised of 48 percent supervisors, 40 percent first-level law enforcement officers, five (5) percent firefighters and EMS personnel, and the remainder from various sources.

When asked if nepotism or fraternization had been an employee issue in their agency, 55 percent of respondents answered “Yes”, 36 percent answered “No”, and the remainder was unsure or had no response.  An overwhelming 71 percent of the respondents said that agencies should have a written policy covering both nepotism and fraternization, while only 40 percent responded that they do have a written policy already.  Of the respondents who answered that they do have an existing policy, 49 percent stated that their policy only covers nepotism; eight (8) percent stated it only covers dating fellow employees; and 34 percent stated it covered both (9% “unsure”).  67 percent of the respondents who have an existing policy also responded that their policy has not been challenged in arbitration, court or other means – compared to only five (5) percent who stated that their policy has been challenged (28% “unsure”).

What was particularly different about this survey was the extremely high volume of narrative responses.  Most of these responses indicated real or perceived nepotism-related abuses in hiring, promotion and assignments.  Many responded that there are prohibitions against nepotism in place, but rarely followed.  Additionally, many were concerned that any form of nepotism would also eliminate or curtail quality candidates from entering the agency.

When it came to fraternization (dating, romantic associations and/or employees becoming married) the responses were significantly different.  Most recounted real operational and morale problems from this practice.  Most indicated that dating between supervisors and subordinates or trainees should be controlled.  Some conveyed instances of actual acts of misconduct or violence resulting from these liaisons.  Many, however, responded that it was improper for the agency to become involved in these personal decisions.  Surprisingly, very few indicated any concern based upon religious belief or moral grounds.

The additional feedback and comments that were given indicated that there are intense feelings both for and against each of these employee control issues.  One thing there was tremendous agreement on was the necessity for some form of written policy on each of these issues (71 percent responded that there should be).  Drafting a reasonable and workable written policy may not be as easy as it sounds and, as many respondents stated, it might simply be a copout to elude reasonable supervisory intervention when relationships cause agency problems.

Nepotism essentially concerns employment of persons from the same family.  The most common persons covered would be under the terms of affinity or consanguinity.  Consanguinity commonly means “kinship” or “of common blood.”  This concept is often further delineated by degrees of this kinship.  Affinity means a relationship through marriage.  The most common nepotism policy in pubic service is very strict and mandates that no one related by marriage or blood can be employed by the jurisdiction.  Texas, for example, has a very detailed family chart almost as elaborate as most family genealogy maps.  If two employees marry while working for the same jurisdiction, one must resign.  In some cases the jurisdiction has a formula by which it will determine which employee must resign.

Other public agencies address the issue in a more practical manner.  These would prohibit any members designated under the nepotism classification from being involved in the hiring/selection and/or promotion of the family member, directly supervising a family member, being in a position to evaluate the work of the family member, being assigned to the same unit/task as the family member, approving expenditures by a family member, or auditing the work of the family member.  Other nepotism policies require the employed family member to recuse him/herself from any hiring, promotion or discipline decisions regarding a family member.

Many of the respondents to our survey brought forth the issue of family traditions of being employed by police, sheriff or fire services.  At many academy graduations, it is common to see current and retired family members involved in the ceremony and it is easy to see the pride in their eyes.  In many parts of the country, particularly rural or isolated areas, there are few available quality candidates.  If family members can’t be employed by the agency then it would eliminate qualified persons.

The negative issue most commonly stated by our respondents was the real or perceived abuses in hiring, promotion and discipline.  When you depart from normal practice, abuse can occur.  A properly articulated personnel manual or protocol can ensure that this does not occur.  It would be essential for any family member to recuse him/herself from this process, along with the posting of hiring and promotional scores/lists, to ensure a degree of transparency in the process.  It should be understood that when a newly elected Sheriff or selected Chief of Police comes on board, if allowed, it is reasonable for that chief executive officer to select immediate management staff to assist in creating the new direction of the agency.
What appears to be unfair is that employees who marry or cohabitate must choose between which one must resign.

Everyone loses under this practice including the agency.  The agency, however, must develop strict guidelines to ensure that shift work, vacations, direct supervision, or partner assignments are reasonably managed.  In small agencies, under 20 employees, that would be very difficult.

These same issues arise from cronyism.  Employees who are hunting buddies, sports teammates, close personal friends, and those involved together in off-duty jobs create the potential for the same abuses or perception of favoritism.

Fraternization is even more complex.  This term is most often referred to designate employees who are dating or become involved in a romantic relationship with another agency employeei.  As several respondents to our survey state, it’s neither reasonable nor proper for a public employer to get involved in love or lust.  However, when that relationship creates the potential for operational, morale or efficiency problems within the agency or results in individual employee negative job performanceii, it is necessary for supervisors to intervene.  A realistic concern for a police agency is not the relationship, but rather the consequences of it within the agency.  Law enforcement agencies have a myriad of resources and procedures to address these types of negative outcomes.

Of course what type of personal relationship should be covered under any protocol in this area?  How many dates would constitute a dating or romantic relationship?  Could anyone support questioning the employees about the specifics and intimate details of their relationship?  Is any dating between a supervisor and subordinate improper?  Is there a difference between being roommates and cohabitating?  Is dating the same as hanging out, hooking up or being close confidants?  Not as easy as you might have thought.

Respondents to our survey identified many of the negative outcomes from dating and/or romantic relationships.

  • On-duty employees visiting the other employee who is off-duty.
  • On-duty contacts by cell phone, computer or police vehicle mobile terminal.
  • Shadowing each person while on-duty.
  • The development of triangles or even more extensive groupings.
  • Stalking during – or particularly after – a breakup.
  • Prolonged mutual break periods.
  • Favoritism in assignments, promotions and discipline.
  • Sexual harassment and abuse.
  • The turmoil during working hours after some breakups.
  • Substance abuse and the potential for suicide.
  • Violence both on- and off-duty.

The reasonable answer is not to prohibit this form of personal relationship, but to exercise practical supervisory techniques to ensure that operational and performance problems are either eliminated or minimized.  Considering the real potential for agency operational, morale and efficiency problems, it is reasonable to establish a requirement that employees who become involved in these forms of personal relationships notify a manager within the agency.  This person is in a position to modify the work arrangements of the involved employees, if necessary.  Should any of the many negative outcomes come to the attention of a supervisor it is reasonable and should be required that the supervisor directly approach each employee to reiterate his/her responsibilities and duties.

Most of the commonly identified negative outcomes are covered under the numerous internal policies, procedures and practices that are available for a supervisor to deal with the problem.  Some of those are conduct unbecoming, improper use of cell phones/computers/mobile data terminals, sexual harassment and hostile work environment, neglect of duty, and domestic misconduct.

Considering all of these issues, it would constitute neglect if a public service agency did not address this subject in writing and during training.  The appropriate approach and scope can reflect the agency and the community it serves`.  This written protocol should serve as a notice to employees to guide them in their individual decision-making when it comes to dating and/or romantic relationships with other agency employees.


i Some very restrictive policies include any employee of the county, city, educational institution or governmental unit.

ii These are the terms commonly used in the case law on public employee conduct unbecoming discipline.

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