FAQ Regarding Consensual Sexual or Romantic Relationships

This site answers some frequently asked questions about MIT’s policy on Consensual Sexual or Romantic Relationships in the Workplace or Academic Environment, Policies & Procedures Section 9.5.

1. Why does MIT have a separate policy on consensual sexual and romantic relationships?

Sexual or romantic relationships may raise concerns of conflict of interest, abuse of authority, favoritism, and unfair treatment when both people in the relationship are in the MIT work or academic environment, and one person holds a position of power or authority over the other. These relationships may also affect others in the work or academic environment, undermining the integrity of their supervision and evaluation as well.  This is true even when the relationship is consensual.  Non-consensual relationships are, of course, prohibited.

MIT’s conflict of interest policy has long recognized that potential conflicts of interest of a sensitive nature could arise out of sexual relationships. The policy, however, did not give much detail or guidance on this topic. Many of MIT’s peer institutions, on the other hand, have a separate policy on consensual sexual and romantic relationships.

This gap was identified by MIT’s Committee on Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response (CSMPR), a presidentially-appointed committee of faculty, staff and students. The new Consensual Relationships policy was the result of nearly two years of review and consultation spearheaded by that Committee, and discussion with many other faculty, staff and students. The policy was added to Policies & Procedures in January 2018. 

2. What are the basic rules about consensual relationships at MIT?

The rules are summarized in the introduction to the policy (Section 9.5.1).  Briefly, the policy covers:

  • Undergraduate students: No MIT faculty or staff member may have a sexual or romantic relationship with any undergraduate student.
  • Graduate students:  No MIT faculty or staff member may have a sexual or romantic relationship with a graduate student if that faculty or staff member is (or might reasonably be expected to be) in a position of authority over that graduate student.
  • Special rules apply to undergraduate and graduate students when they have authority over other students, like Teaching Assistants or Graduate Resident Tutors.
  • Principal Investigators (PIs) are prohibited from having a sexual or romantic relationship with a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar over whom the PI has direct or indirect authority.
  • All supervisors (including faculty supervisors) are prohibited from having a sexual or romantic relationship with anyone they supervise, evaluate, or over whom they otherwise have direct or indirect influence or authority.
  • Certain other members of the MIT community are also covered by this policy: individuals with visitor appointments, postdoctoral fellows as well as postdoc associates, affiliates, and any other individual who conducts business with or on behalf of the Institute.
3. Does this policy apply to students?

This policy does not apply to relationships between students in most cases – whether between undergraduates, between a graduate student and an undergraduate, or between graduate students.

However, this policy does apply if one student has a position of authority over another student with whom they have a sexual or romantic relationship.  That would occur, for example, if a student is serving as a Teaching Assistant or a Graduate Resident Advisor or Graduate Resident Tutor and the other student is in that class or residence hall. In those cases, the student in the position of authority must notify their faculty member, head of house, or other supervisor, and recuse themselves from any authority over that other student. See Section for more detail.

4. I see that faculty or staff cannot have a relationship with undergraduate students. Why isn’t there a bar against those relationships with graduate students?

The purpose of the policy is to address potential conflicts of interest or abuse of authority. For undergraduates, it is hard to identify which faculty, instructors, or staff might have authority over them. Since undergraduates take many classes across the Institute, they may be studying with a wide number of faculty, lecturers, instructors, etc. Also, since most undergraduates live on campus, they interact with many MIT staff who potentially have authority over them. Given these circumstances, the policy includes a bar on any faculty or staff having a sexual or romantic relationship with any undergraduate student.

Graduate students’ studies tend to be more narrowly focused, and many grad students live off campus. The number of MIT faculty and staff who could be in a position of authority over them is both more limited and more identifiable. Most graduate students are also older than undergraduates. So for graduate students, the policy focuses on situations where concerns of conflict of interest or abuse of authority are more likely to arise -- with faculty, other academic instructional staff, and other staff who have authority over the particular graduate student. The policy also covers those individuals if they "might reasonably be expected to have" authority over that graduate student. That latter phrase is designed to cover faculty in the same or a related department, even if they currently have no academic authority over the individual graduate student but it’s reasonable to think that they might have such authority in the future.

5. Does this policy apply to postdocs?

Yes, postdoc associates and fellows are covered by this policy in three ways: 1) no relationship with undergraduate students, 2) no relationship with someone they supervise, and 3) a principal investigator cannot have a relationship with a postdoc who that PI supervises.

On the first two policy items, postdocs are treated just like other non-student members of the MIT community.  On the third item, Section 9.5.4 states that principal investigators cannot have a sexual or romantic relationship with a postdoc scholar (a fellow or an associate) over whom they have direct or indirect supervisory or other authority. The policy gives examples of "indirect" or "other" authority, such as assigning research, writing a letter of recommendation, and determining authorship on papers.

6. How does this policy apply to other staff?

The policy applies to all supervisors in all DLCs, including faculty, and prohibits any supervisor from having a sexual or romantic relationship with someone they supervise (Section 9.5.5). The policy includes anyone who has supervisory responsibility or who evaluates or exercises indirect influence or authority over another person, whether that other person is a faculty member, any other employee, a postdoctoral scholar, a visitor, or any other member of the MIT community. The policy also applies to any employee whose job confers broad influence or authority over students or other learners (e.g., people in edX courses). The term "broad influence or authority" is defined in the policy at Section 9.5.2. Note that supervising a family member is prohibited by another policy, Employment of Members of the Same Family, Policies & Procedures Section 7.2.

The policy also prohibits a supervisor overseeing someone with whom they had a prior sexual or romantic relationship, and addresses the situation of a sexual or romantic relationship developing between a supervisor and subordinate.

7. Does the policy apply to pre-existing relationships?

The policy recognizes that relationships may develop between peers, and then one person's role changes so that they now have authority over the other person. In such a case, the person with the new authority must (1) recuse themselves from any future authority or supervision of the other person and (2) notify their department head or other supervisor. The supervisor will take steps to manage that potential conflict of interest. See FAQ #10.

If two undergraduates were dating then one graduates and is employed by MIT while the other remains an undergraduate, that employee must notify their supervisor of their consensual relationship. In most cases, the employee will not have any authority over the undergraduate and the ongoing relationship will not pose any problem under this policy.

8. I think that two other people in my unit are in a relationship that would violate this policy. Do I have to report this relationship?

No, there is no general duty under this policy to report a relationship between other people, although supervisors who are aware of a relationship may have some specific responsibilities, as discussed in FAQ #10.  On the other hand, there is also no expectation that you should keep silent about a sexual or romantic relationship in your department, lab or center if it bothers you in any way. See FAQ #9 for information about people you can talk to.

9. If I have concerns about a relationship, who can I talk to?

If you have concerns about a relationship that may violate this policy, you are strongly encouraged to talk to one of the resources at MIT. A list of resources specifically for students can be found here. A general list of resources for faculty, staff, other employees, and postdoc associates and fellows can be found at the HR Complaint Process and Resolution website. That website also contains a form to use to file a formal complaint against an employee (including a faculty member). The Title IX office or the Violence Prevention & Response office may be particularly helpful if you are concerned about a relationship you are involved in, for example, if that relationship no longer feels consensual to you.

10. I am a supervisor. What do I need to do?

The policy describes the responsibilities of supervisors who learn of a prohibited relationship in Section This may happen when someone reports that they are in a relationship where they have authority, or that they had a prior relationship with someone over whom they now have authority. As a supervisor, your responsibility is to put in place adequate alternative supervisory arrangements.  Doing this effectively so that the other person -- and their peers – are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged can be complicated. You are encouraged to consult with your department head or other superior, with your Administrative Officer, or with an MIT human resources professional about how to handle such a relationship.

As stated in FAQ #8, there is no general duty for individuals at MIT to report a relationship that might violate this policy. That said, as a supervisor, if you see something that suggests such a relationship, you should not ignore what you have heard or seen but instead should raise the concerns in private with the senior person in the relationship.

11. If I have questions about this policy, where do I go?

The same resources noted in FAQ #9 may be able to answer questions about the policy. For employees, please contact your Human Resources Officer or, for Lincoln Lab, your HR professional.