Definition: Nepotism and Consensual Relations

In a community as large as the University of Minnesota, it is inevitable that close personal relationships will exist among its members, often of a familial or a sexual and/or romantic nature. If the non-familial sexual and/or romantic relationships are truly voluntary and consensual, they are not sexual harassment. Nonetheless they may raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

As a result, the regents passed a policy on nepotism and consensual relations. The policy was updated in May 2012, and the current policy prohibits members of the University community from directly influencing the University employment or academic progress of a University community member with whom they have a personal relationship. The policy now also prohibits relationships in which there is no direct influence, but the relationship has a negative impact on the educational or work environment.

The definition of personal relationship was expanded and made more explicit and includes marital or other committed relationship, significant familial relationship, including, relationships by blood adoption, marriage, or domestic partnership; partner, parent, grandparent, child, sibling, first cousin, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, spouse, brother- or sister-in-law, father- or mother-in-law, son- or daughter-in-law, step-parent, or step-child; consensual sexual or romantic relationship; a close personal friendship; or a significant business relationship.

When the University Senate discussed and approved this policy in 1989, the senate included the following language describing its purpose.

“The University of Minnesota is committed to the highest standards of professional conduct and integrity and expects all members of the University community to adhere to them. Members of the University community have the obligation to respect and be fair to other members of the community, and must take care to ensure that personal relationships within the community do not result in conflicts of interest and situations that might impair objective judgment.”

“Whenever members of the University community hire, promote, supervise, evaluate, determine salary, grade or advise, or otherwise directly influence the employment or academic progress of other individuals with whom they have personal relationships, the impartiality of any such action or decision is called into question. Moreover, when two individuals have both an academic or employment association and a personal relationship, the dual relationships may adversely affect the academic or work environment of the University, and others may lose confidence in the integrity of academic or employment decision-making more generally. In order to ensure that members of the University community fulfill their ethical and professional responsibilities to act impartially and without conflicts of interest, the University adopts this policy.” 

In addition, the University Senate addressed the potential complications of consensual relationships. 

Potential Connections with Sexual Harassment Claims

“Individuals should be aware that consensual or romantic relationships may result in claims of sexual harassment because the voluntariness of the consent may be questioned when a power differential exists between the individuals in the relationship. The power disparity between a supervisor and a subordinate makes such relationships vulnerable to exploitation and to claims of exploitation. This is especially true of relationships involving faculty and their students. If a sexual harassment claim subsequently is filed by one of the individuals in the relationship, the argument that the relationship was consensual will be evaluated in light of this power differential.”

“Individuals should also be aware that consensual sexual or romantic relationships may give rise to third-party claims of sexual harassment based on allegations that real or perceived favoritism, or a resulting change in the employment or academic environment, unreasonably interferes with the third party’s employment or education by creating an environment that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive....”

Potential Violations of the Code of Conduct

“The Code of Conduct says that members of the University community (as there defined) ‘are expected to adhere to the highest ethical standards of professional conduct and integrity.’ Because of the special obligations of faculty (including all instructional staff) toward their students and of supervisors toward their subordinates, actions taken by faculty members or supervisors in pursuing consensual sexual or romantic relationships with their current students or subordinates may harm the academic and work environment, whether the advances are welcomed or rebuffed.  Such actions may violate the standards articulated in the Code of Conduct, even when the activities prohibited by the Consensual Relationships Policy have been eliminated.”

Prior Relationships

“When a personal relationship... has ended, there may be existing or potential conflicts of interest, and compromised objective judgment resulting from such conflicts, that  warrant...consultation....”

EOAA Equal Opportunity Consultants are experienced in assessing potential conflicts and helping to create resolutions. If you wonder whether the policy applies to you, please contact us to discuss your situation. Policies and procedures for handling consultations involving nepotism and consensual relations can be found on the EOAA website and on the University Policy Library website in the administrative policy, Managing Nepotism and Personal Relationships, which includes a link to the Template of an Agreement to Comply with the Board of Regents Policy: Nepotism and Personal Relationships, and in the administrative procedure, Responding to Nepotism and Personal Relationships.