Roses are Red,
Violets are Blue,
Office Romances are Sweet,
Until Somebody Sues.
It’s February, and to quote Tom Jones “love is in the air, everywhere [you] look around.” Depending upon the make up of your work force, dating amongst your employees may be a common issue for you. A recent survey conducted by Vault.com reported that 59% of respondents had been involved in a relationship with a co-worker.
Just like many other things in life, office romances are fun until someone gets hurt. Whether it is a scorned lover or a co-worker who believes he or she is now at a disadvantage due to favoritism toward the couple, these relationships can lead to huge headaches for human resources. So, what can an employer do to protect office dynamics and to safeguard itself against lawsuits filed by seemingly slighted employees?
Who wrote the book of love? What does your handbook say about office romances?
When you learn of an office romance, the first thing you should check is whether there is an “office dating” policy in your handbook. Many employers have clear policies that romances between co-workers are expressly forbidden. Other employers have policies that provide that only romances between supervisors and subordinates are outlawed. And, others have no policies on the topic at all. If you do not have an “office dating policy,” you might consider whether one would be appropriate for your workplace due to your company’s size, structure, and environment, and whether you would be comfortable imposing discipline for violations of the policy. Remember, if you decide to implement an “office dating policy” you must, without exception, enforce the policy and impose discipline on each member of the couple equally.
Some employers have opted not to ban such relationships but do have a policy in their handbook that requires employees to notify management of romantic relationships between co-workers. Requiring employees to notify management of their blossoming relationship not only allows employers to document their files concerning this consensual relationship, but it also allows management to engage in a conversation about what conduct is appropriate in the workplace (sorry, no PDA’s), to remind employees of the company’s sexual harassment policy, and to make adjustments to work schedules, if necessary to keep the peace.
Some employers also require love-struck employees to sign a “Consensual Relationship Agreement.” Such an agreement acknowledges, in writing, that (1) the parties have entered into a mutually consensual relationship; (2) they are both free to end the relationship at any time; and, (3) they will not allow the relationship to negatively affect their job performance. This sort of agreement can be a good idea because it documents the existence of a consensual relationship in the event that it becomes an issue later on down the road.
She loves me, she loves me not.
So what happens when the honeymoon phase is over and the couple splits? You will want to again counsel the employees on your sexual harassment policy and document their personnel files with a note that the relationship has ended and that they have both been counseled on the company’s sexual harassment policy. And, if either party expresses concerns about working with the other, you might consider accommodating the complaining party by moving him or her to another position or department. If it becomes clear that the parties can no longer work together in any capacity, or you do not have the ability to move them around, I suggest you consult your lawyer on how to proceed before making any decisions. As the saying goes, “only fools rush in” — this is true of love and employment decisions.
Regardless of whether you are dealing with office dating issues, February is a great time to review your sexual harassment policy with, and provide training to, all of your employees. You should use your policy and any training time to explain to your employees what acceptable workplace behavior is and what behaviors cross the line as inappropriate. Your policy must be clear, easy to read, and comprehensive. Of utmost importance is that your employees unquestionably understand what they should do when they experience sexual harassment or what they should do when they see behavior that could be perceived as sexual harassment. Your mechanism for fielding reports of sexual harassment will vary depending upon your size and industry, but it is imperative that you have reporting and investigation procedures in place and that you take all reports seriously. As with all employment issues, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Being prepared for office romances will allow you to better protect yourself from the fallout when such relationships sour.