While Cupid’s arrow can strike at any time of the year, Valentine’s Day is a good time for employers to review certain workplace policies to ensure that office romance doesn’t give way to sour feelings and bitter recriminations.
As tempting as it might be to ban office relationships with a “non-fraternization” policy as may have been prevalent in years past, it’s difficult to fight human nature. Full-time employees spend half their waking hours commuting to work or at work, so it’s no surprise that nearly three in eight surveyed employees report having dated a co-worker. In fact, many of us know (or might be part of) married couples who met at the workplace. That said, most relationships don’t last, and whether the breakup was mutual or one-sided, it can still create issues at work. Positive and clear policies can reduce your risk.
Harassment Policies and Training
Long before the #MeToo movement began in 2017, employers have been required to have anti-harassment policies in place. Over the years, training requirements have been implemented, and now all employers of five or more employees must provide training to all of their employees (not just supervisors). Your harassment policies apply even where there is a consensual relationship, as overt displays of affection can create a sexually-charged atmosphere that can lead to claims of a hostile working environment. Participants in consensual relationships must therefore “keep it away from the office.”
One of the unsuspected ways office romance can hit an employer can come when a non-participant in the relationship accuses one of the lovers of favoring the other in terms of assignments, promotion, and/or other perquisites of employment. A “paramour” theory is a variant of a harassment claim, which asserts that by not participating in a relationship with a decisionmaker, the victim was denied opportunities that went to the decisionmaker’s lover or paramour.
When the Relationship Ends
Despite all good intentions and infatuation at the start of a new thing, the vast majority of relationships do not lead to marriage and happily ever after. One or both parties decides to move on. This is the most dangerous point for employers. Regardless of who ends it, either party might accuse the other of unwanted ongoing attention (just as repeated requests for a date can be harassing, repeated efforts to “patch things up” can be viewed in the same way) retaliation (for example, the jilted one denies, or is accused of denying, the other one certain work opportunities, or an adverse action leads to allegations that this was done out of jealousy or hurt feelings, and is characterized as quid pro quo harassment), or other inappropriate treatment.
Love Contracts Can Help
As awkward and unromantic as it may sound, a “love contract” might be the right response for an employer upon learning of an office romance. Under a standard “love contract,” both parties acknowledge the existence of a relationship, agree to abide by all workplace policies including anti-harassment and other related codes of conduct, agree to refrain from public displays of affection, and reaffirm their commitment to treat each other and everyone else fairly. Although blanket “non-fraternization policies might not be appropriate, it certainly is appropriate to prohibit relationships between supervisors and subordinates, so if the parties’ relationship is important enough to them, they should agree, and employers should insist, that the reporting relationships will be changed.
In sum, while love and romance are wonderful things, they can present challenges to employers. The proactive and wise employer will be prepared for whatever nature has in store by developing solid policies ahead of time, and by implementing and enforcing them fairly and evenly. The wise employer will also contact employment counsel for policy review, dealing with new challenges, and to conduct anti-harassment training.