"We do prohibit our supervisors from having a dating relationship with anybody within their location," says Fred Gunderson, senior director of human resources at the Columbus-based restaurant chain.
Enforcing the policy, however, isn't always so simple. Each case is addressed individually, Gunderson says, based on the facts and circumstances. Responses can range from a reprimand to a suspension and even termination. The company also has resolved issues regarding romantic workplace relationships by transferring one or both of the individuals within the 11,000-plus employee system.
"The relationship itself is always different," Gunderson says. "The other thing is the credible evidence that you can determine in the investigation. Sometimes you get really good evidence-you have witnesses-and sometimes it's one person's word against another."
In one recent case, a supervisor called one of his store employees at home for no business reason. Although employees and supervisors can maintain friendships, in this case the supervisor did not indicate that he had a friendship with the employee. Both parties acknowledged what had happened, so the investigation wasn't complicated. That supervisor received a reprimand. Disciplinary action could have been more severe if there was a more blatant violation or if the supervisor had been warned previously.
White Castle relied on its legal department and outside counsel to develop the policy in the early 1980s at the same time it implemented a sexual-harassment policy. Aside from the concern that harassment charges or lawsuits could be filed if romantic relationships between supervisors and employees went bad, the company needed the policy to deal with the practical day-to-day business concerns of special treatment. The policy does not include a nepotism clause since White Castle has relied on three generations of Ingrams to lead the family-owned business into its 77th year.
"In most of our operating areas we have no problem hiring relatives," says Gunderson, who has a nephew working as a shift manager at one Columbus location. "In fact, I think that speaks well for a company-that employees want to bring relatives and friends in."