Flowers, chocolate, and strongly-worded legal complaints: all signs of romance on the job. Many people meet their mate at work, but savvy employers know that love is complicated. When romance is in the air at work, an employer may be faced with gossip, lovers’ quarrels, and distracted employees. Even worse, this may lead to sexual harassment, retaliation, favoritism, and workplace violence. A list like that might make you weak in the knees for all the wrong reasons.
Although an employer may wish to ban dating in the workplace outright, that may be unrealistic. Instead, employers may choose to mitigate risk by implementing a variety of romance in the workplace policies and procedures.
Workplace romances: Potential risks for employers
Sexual harassment claims
Sexual harassment claims often arise out of office romances between supervisors and subordinates, but claims may also arise between colleagues when an employee’s affection is not reciprocated or a relationship sours. Employees may claim that they were targeted and treated poorly after ending a relationship or rebuffing unwanted advances from a supervisory suitor, especially if that employee is later terminated or passed over for promotion. The demise of a coworker relationship may also lead to harassment claims if one party continues to pursue the other.
Even when a relationship is consensual, public displays of affection create an uncomfortable atmosphere for colleagues and potential hostile work environment claims by third parties.
Employees may claim that they were retaliated against for reporting unwelcome romantic advances or other harassing conduct if an employee faces negative treatment after complaining. Employees may also claim that they hesitated to report this conduct because of feared retaliation or the employer not taking their complaints seriously.
Relationships between supervisors and subordinates may lead to claims of sexual favoritism. Participants in a romantic relationship may believe they are receiving special treatment due to their romantic relationship and that romantic involvement is a condition of employment. Other employees may feel that a supervisor’s paramour is receiving an unfair professional advantage.
In extreme cases, soured relationships or unreturned affection may result in workplace violence. Aside from the human cost of such an occurrence, an employer may find themselves liable where they failed to identify or effectively address the risk of violence.
Minimizing risk from workplace romance
Apart from barring all romantic relationships, employers have many options.
Bar romance between supervisors and subordinates
Supervisor and subordinate relationships are among the riskiest areas for sexual harassment claims. At the same time, these relationships are much easier to manage with a relationship prohibition than a general dating ban for the workforce. A romance in the workplace policy addressing supervisor and subordinate relationships is an effective tool to communicate the employer’s expectations in this area.
Use a love contract
A love contract is an agreement between two employees where they represent that their relationship is consensual and not sexual harassment. Love contracts also often serve as reminders to dating employees that they must conduct themselves professionally. Employers may find this a useful tool for reducing liability by ensuring known relationships are consensual, rooting out problematic behaviors, and maintaining a comfortable workplace environment.
Sexual harassment training and reporting
Sexual harassment training programs, now required in some states, can be an effective way of minimizing liability. Similarly, easy to access reporting channels, such as an anonymous hotline, can help an employer mitigate risk by being able to address previously unknown unlawful behavior and reduce employee claims that they were afraid to report harassment.
Inform employees that communications are monitored
Harassment often occurs via digital communications and, in the workplace, frequently via an employer’s phone, computer, or network. With so many people working remotely during the pandemic, this concern is high on the priority list. A communications monitoring policy coupled with regular reminders to employees that their communications are monitored can serve as an effective detection tool and a deterrent to misuse of an employer’s technology.
When things go wrong with a workplace romance
When things go wrong, the EEOC and courts may look at what preventative measures and policies an employer has in place and whether those measures and policies were followed. An employer with strong preventative measures and diligent follow up is in a stronger position to defend itself. Practical Law’s suite of tools, including romance in the workplace policies, love contracts, and sexual harassment prevention materials, can help employers implement preventative measures and address issues before they escalate to lawsuits. Learn more about how Practical Law can help employers navigate workplace romances and other legal matters.
This post was created with our Practical Law labor and employment attorney-editors. As these issues are always evolving, the best way to stay updated is by letting our 300+ full-time attorney-editors help you.