February 04, 2013
Workplace romance video: Employer best practices for romantic relationships
By Joan Farrell, JD, Senior Legal Editor

Most people who engage in romantic relationships understand that there’s always the risk that things won’t work out. But when coworkers get romantically involved, they may be putting more at risk than their feelings. When such relationships fall apart, it can put professional relationships--and even the employer--at risk. In this video, BLR Legal Editor Joan Farrell explains how workplace dating can impact employers, and what steps they should take to protect themselves from liability.

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Chris Ceplenski (for HR.BLR.com): Why should it matter to employers whether co-workers engage in romantic relationships at work?

Joan Farrell: It matters to employers because they are exposed to potential legal liability if a relationship goes sour. If co-workers engage in romantic relationships at work and they maintain professional conduct in the workplace and live happily ever after, there is no problem. But relationships don’t always work out that way. Sometimes a relationship falls apart and the resulting tension makes it difficult for the employees to work together effectively or even maintain professional conduct.

Sometimes after a relationship ends, one person will claim that the relationship was not consensual and there will be allegations of sexual harassment. Sometimes one employee continues to pursue the relationship after it ends and that kind of unwelcome behavior leads to sexual harassment claims. And that’s just when the relationship is between coworkers.

Relationships between a supervisor and subordinate create a whole different set of problems because of the imbalance of power. If things fall apart, there can be claims of sexual harassment or retaliation, for instance, if a former girlfriend gets a poor performance review or less desirable job assignments.

So an employer will be justifiably concerned about problems like conflicts of interest, claims of favoritism or unfair treatment by other subordinates, and allegations of sexual harassment or retaliation.

Ceplenski: What steps should employers take to protect themselves from potential problems that could arise from a workplace romance?

Farrell: Employers can have a policy that prohibits romantic relationships in the workplace, but a policy like that is difficult to enforce and makes the employer into the romance police trying to figure out if employees have violated the policy. Because people spend so much time at work, romances are going to happen, so it’s better for employers to have policies to manage the situation when coworkers become romantically involved.

One option is to require employees to notify the employer of the relationship. This gives the employer some protection from allegations of sexual harassment.

Another option is to require the employees to sign a consensual relationship agreement sometimes called a "love contract," confirming that the relationship is voluntary and that the employees will comply with the employer’s policies against sexual harassment and retaliation. The privacy laws in some states will limit an employer’s ability to have these kinds of agreements, so employers need to check the laws in the states where they’re located.

For supervisors, an employer can have a policy that prohibits supervisor-subordinate relationships and requires the supervisor to report the relationship. The policy can require reassignment or transfer so there’s no reporting relationship between the employees, but employers need to be careful about transferring the subordinate to avoid claims of retaliation or discrimination. The policy should include the employer’s business reasons for the policy, like avoiding a conflict of interest.

It’s also important to make sure all employees understand the employer’s policy against sexual harassment and retaliation and that they know the procedure for reporting inappropriate conduct or harassment. And training on harassment prevention should include information on social media and the latest communication technology so that employees understand that comments that are inappropriate in person or by email are also inappropriate when they’re texted, tweeted, and posted on sites like Facebook.

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