Workplace Romance

Since it is Valentine’s Week and I am an employment lawyer, my thoughts naturally turn to all of the ways that workplace romances can disrupt your business.

Don’t think it isn’t happening at your company. Of the almost 1,900 employees who responded to a 2014 office romance survey by Match.com, 56% of workers said they have been in a workplace relationship. Can you say “hostile environment”? It gets worse: of those who dated a co-worker last year, 20% of women and 9% of men said it involved dating a supervisor. Can you say “quid pro quo sexual harassment”?

Workplace romances are fraught with sexual harassment and retaliation risks. Many times the relationship creates opportunities for gossip, name-calling, sexual jokes and scorn. If the couple breaks up, the cold shoulder, the back-biting and the anger can easily be twisted into a claim that the workplace has become a hostile environment based on gender.

If a boss dates a subordinate and then the relationship ends, it gets even messier. The claim can become quid pro quo (loosely translated “this for that”), meaning that the subordinate may say that he or she was passed over for a raise or promotion or even fired because the boss isn’t getting what the boss wants. Quid pro quo cases involving a tangible job detriment, such as a demotion, are the worst kinds of sexual harassment cases for an employer to try to defend.

Many employers are hesitant to get involved in their workers’ “private” lives. If it is developing in your workplace, it is hardly private. If you have at least 15 employees (and are therefore subject to sexual harassment laws), you may need a written policy to establish clear boundaries regarding workplace romances. The policy can include:

  • Requirement of prompt disclosure of a developing relationship, particularly if it involves a supervisor;
  • Removal of management authority from anyone over an employee involved in a personal relationship;
  • Instruction to keep interactions at work professional (no public displays of affection, no long personal emails, no hanging around the significant other’s desk giggling and flirting);
  • Requirement that the dating couple work with management to find an acceptable solution to any problems that arise, such as complaints of favoritism from coworkers;
  • Requirement to accept transfers, changes in duties, or even voluntary termination of the more senior party if other measures don’t prevent or resolve problems.
  • Requirement that the end of any such relationship be reported to human resources so that future actions can be scrutinized for retaliation or harassment.

You may think a formal policy unnecessary, but sweet workplace romances oftentimes turn sour and when the flames of love die, out of the embers can arise lawsuits.

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