Dear Evil HR Lady,
My live-in boyfriend of five years and I work for the same company, albeit in different departments. The company is big but our departments are relatively small, so all my immediate coworkers know him as my boyfriend and all his coworkers know me as his girlfriend, etc. The issue is, we are polyamorous; that is to say we have other partners that the other is fully aware of. We do not discuss this aspect of our personal lives with any of our coworkers, the only one who knows is a woman my boyfriend dated a long time ago who works in a different building.
The reason we don’t discuss it (or even keep photos of our other partners on our desks) is that we aren’t sure if it is something either of us can be fired for. We’re not married so we aren’t breaking whatever obscure adultery laws my state might still have on the books. I’ve been with the company for three years now, my reviews have always been very positive and I’ve been commended as a valuable, hard-working employee. However, I’m concerned that sooner or later someone will find out about our relationship. We live very close to some of our coworkers, and I’m really rather surprised that our more nosy-Nellies haven’t stumbled upon either of us having a date night with someone that we don’t live with.
Do I need to be extra discreet about my non-primary relationship, or is this something that can be overlooked given my job performance?
In all my experience, I have never run across this particular problem, but my gut instinct was that there is no law protecting polyamory. My other gut instinct was that, while most people would think it was a novelty, they probably wouldn’t really care.
And since I don’t get paid big bucks (ha!) to just guess about things, I consulted two experts. The first, my very conservative mother. Her response: “With everyone being so promiscuous anyway nowadays, I can’t see what is different here. Just tell people you’ve decided to date others.” Which is not really what I expected from her, but exactly what I expect from your coworkers. Because, let’s face it, nobody is as interesting to other people as they think they are.
The second was employment attorney Bryan Cavanaugh. He responded, “I agree with your view that there is generally no legal protection for this conduct and lifestyle, and so it would be legal for her employer to fire her for this.” Which is not what you wanted to hear. However, Cavanaugh did give a few caveats:
An exception exists in a few states, like Colorado, that explicitly protect an employee from being discriminated against because of his or her lawful conduct outside the workplace during non-working hours. Engaging in polyamorous activity would presumably not violate any civil or criminal law. Therefore, in these states, there would be protection for polyamorous conduct.
So, in short, move to Colorado. Except that may not even be necessary. Cavanaugh explaned that while things such as sexual orientation and gender identity are protected in about half the states and some local governments, they focus more on identity, rather than action. “Polyamory is not so closely tied to this woman’s status as a heterosexual or identity as a woman that her conduct would be protected by sexual orientation or gender identity laws,” he said, but laws in this area are constantly expanding. He advises companies to stop and think:
Before the employer would discharge her (and/or her boyfriend) for this conduct, the employer should ask itself “so what”? Does the conduct of these two employees genuinely harm (or potentially harm) the workplace or the business? It probably does not since it is hard to see how this conduct would interfere with their abilities to perform their jobs. An employer should be prepared to answer two questions (at least to itself) before terminating someone’s employment because of this. First, why does this lifestyle matter, as far as the job goes? And second, what exactly is it about that lifestyle that makes the person unfit for the job? While it is unreasonable to expect an employer never to consider an employee’s character, past, or outside activities, this situation is another reminder that an employee’s ability to perform his or her job well should be the primary consideration in a company’s personnel decisions.
Polyamory is probably not going to help her in her job, because people may think she is “weird,” so being discreet is not a bad idea.
I fully agree. While it’s not likely to result in a firing, it’s also not likely to garner a promotion. Additionally, unless you are behaving inappropriately with your dates in public, your nosey-Nellie coworkers aren’t likely even to notice if they see you drive by with a man other than your live in boyfriend in the car. If they do, it’s your choice how to respond. “Oh yes, I went out with Steve Friday night,” may elicit a response of, “But I thought Dave was your boyfriend?” to which you can respond, “Of course! That doesn’t mean we don’t have other friends.” That will end all discussion, especially if Dave says something similar.
If you respond with, “I’m polyamorous and enjoy having multiple boyfriends!” it’s more likely to be a topic of discussion.
So, be discreet, but don’t worry about it all that much. It’s unlikely to be an issue at work in a large, non-religiously based company.