Cupid at Work? Bah humbug!

Reuters published a story today about a survey on workplace romances. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, 40% of American workers admit that they have dated a coworker. Another 10% say there is a coworker they would like to date. Interestingly only 5% of women want to date a coworker while 14% of men do. Can someone say “hostile environment”?

It gets worse: of those who dated a co-worker in the last year, a third of those relationships involved a coworker who was held a more senior position, including 42% that dated their boss. Can you say “quid pro quo sexual harassment”?

I know I should be all starry-eyed about all the wonderful sparks of romance lighting up American workplaces. But my 22 years of law practice always make me fast-forward to the part where the flames of love die and and out of the embers come the EEOC claims.

Workplace romances are fraught with sexual harassment and retaliation risks. If coworkers date and then break up, the gossip, name-calling, sexual jokes and scorn can easily be twisted into a claim that the workplace has become a hostile environment based on gender.

If a boss dates a subordinate, it gets even messier. The claim can become quid pro quo (loosely translated “this for that”), meaning that the subordinate may say that she was passed over for a raise or promotion or even fired because she wouldn’t give the boss what he used to get and still 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. You may need a written policy to establish clear boundaries between business and personal interactions. It can include:

  • Instruction to keep interactions at work professional (no PDA, no long personal exchanges);
  • 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;
  • Requirement that the dating couple work with management to find an acceptable solution to any problems that arise, such as complaints of favoritism;
  • 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.

Sort of takes all the fun out of the romance, doesn’t it? I feel like Scrooge at Christmas, but I’ve seen too many of these relationships go bad and then the company has to pay the price. Better to nip it in the bud, red rosebud, that is, since ’tis the season for overpriced, underdeveloped blooms!

Leave a Reply