'Tis the Season for Office Romances … Love and the Office Water Cooler

11 February 2013 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

As Valentine’s Day approaches, what better time to address the proverbial workplace issue — the office romance. While everyone certainly loves a great love story with a happily ever after ending, unfortunately, office romance can often create serious liability risks for employers. Consider these helpful hints when dealing with Cupid’s arrows:

1. Be realistic and don’t ignore office romances.

Employers should not take the “ostrich” approach of burying their heads in the sand when it comes to office romances. Consider having a policy that outlines the basis of what the company expects when it comes to interoffice personal relationships, such as requiring that interoffice relationships be disclosed. It also would be advisable to have a policy that does not allow relationships between subordinates and supervisors. These policies also should be enforced equally across the board so employers do not run afoul of disparate enforcement claims. It is imperative that employers have clear complaint mechanisms so that there can be no question as how an employee can notify Human Resources if a complaint arises.

2. Require employees to keep their behavior work-appropriate.

No, the office is not an extension of the employee’s home. Employers should have a policy that clearly defines the actions that will not be tolerated in the office and reinforce the employer’s policy against sexual harassment. Remember, harassment can rise to the level of a hostile work environment claim, which can affect those employees not a party to the romance.

3. If there are complaints, promptly investigate.

No amount of well-drafted policy language will prevent complaints. When a complaint arises, the employer has a duty to promptly and thoroughly investigate the claims and, to the extent that anything needs to be addressed, promptly remedy the matter. The fact that a consensual relationship may have existed in the past shouldn’t be interpreted to mean a complaint may not be real. Prompt investigation will allow the company to address the current situation and show other employees that improper behavior will not be tolerated.

4. Consider the use of a “love contract.”

Although there is some controversy surrounding the appropriateness of their use, a “love contract” is a document signed by the involved employees and the company, which affirms the consensual nature of the relationship and has the involved employees acknowledge they have read and will adhere to the company’s anti-harassment policies. Love contracts also can be used to reiterate what is appropriate workplace behavior during the relationship and after, should the relationship end.

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