Romancing the Workplace

By Todd Scherwin and Colin Calvert

There are steps a company can take to minimize the risk of harassment as a result of romantic relationships in the workplace.

Most articles about sexual harassment allegations in the workplace focus on completely unwanted advances, comments, or other such behaviors. But sexual harassment in the workplace can also result from fractured office romances, greatly complicating the issue. Fortunately, there are steps a company can take to minimize the risk of such an outcome.

Workplace Romance

When an office romance ends, it’s possible that the jilted party either won’t want to let it end or will want revenge. Either situation can give rise to complaints of harassment, particularly where one participant in the relationship later claims that, rather than a romance, the relationship was actually stalking or harassment.

Employers in most states are prohibited from explicitly preventing employees from engaging in romantic relationships. However, in situations where there is a romantic relationship between a supervisor and a sub­­ordinate, an employer has a stronger case to make against the relationship.

To implement such a policy, companies should stress that these types of relationships create a conflict of interest. There are laws in many states that allow companies to dictate workplace policies and procedures to remove conflicts of interest. Clearly, any type of romantic relationship between a manager and a subordinate will create such a conflict. Therefore, in many states, companies are free to enact policies preventing management-level employees from engaging in romantic relationships with their subordinates.

If such a relationship does occur, the policy should clearly state what the ramifications will be. Most companies have policies stating that such actions can result in discipline ranging from transfer to termination.

The severity of the discipline always depends on the nature and extent of the harassment in question. However, companies should try the least intrusive means first, such as transferring one of the parties to another department if a position is available. Companies should be aware, however, that a transfer doesn’t always solve the problem. For example, by transferring a manager to supervise a different department, the company could potentially magnify the problem by creating interdepartmental conflict. If a transfer doesn’t fix the problem or if there is no other appropriate position available, termination may be the only option.

If the conflict can be resolved short of termination, both parties will remain in the workplace. Therefore, the employer should remain aware of both employees’ disposition by keeping in touch with their supervisors. Follow-up interviews with both employees at a reasonable interval, such as one to three months after the transfer, also should help to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

Love Contracts

Another tactic is to require employees to execute what is called a Love Contract. This document, though not technically a contract, formalizes the consensual nature of a workplace romance. It can be beneficial to the extent that it requires the parties to formally acknowledge that their relationship is consensual and not based on any threats or harassment. Additionally, it clarifies in writing that both parties understand that the relationship will not result in any unique benefits.

These agreements have been used more frequently over the past 10 years. However, em­ploy­ers should consult legal counsel prior to implementing such a policy to ensure that it passes legal muster in their state. Not all states permit them.



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