1. THE BACKGROUND.
Today, the workplace has become an opportunity not only to gain increased job status and economic wealth but also an opportunity to find the "love of your life." In the workplace, romance takes place because you can be assured that the person whom you might fall in love with has the same interest and passion. There are many underlying sociological reasons why this is taking place but, suffice to say, it has been happening for some time now and increasing at a steady pace. People work longer and thus have less free time, less time off, and are more career-oriented these days. In most instances, employees do not have the time or perhaps willingness to engage in old-fashioned and inefficient dating. According to a 2017 study by Career Builder, 41 percent of employees said they had dated a work colleague within the prior year. Another study by the University of Chicago revealed that nearly 22 percent of all married couples met at work. These are astonishing numbers, to say the least, and point to the reality that romance in the workplace is permanently here to stay.
2. THE PROBLEMS.
More often than not it is the employer who suffers the major fallout from broken workplace romances. There have been countless horror stories that happen because of broken romantic relationships at work. The reason for this is because the relationships may not be viable in the long run. Often times, these short-term relationships lead to violent breakups at work, property damage, depression, and worst of all, suicide. Additionally, it can be even more problematic if the relationship is one between a nonmanagement employee and management level individual. When relationships involve supervisors and co-workers the problems get even uglier. These broken relationships can often lead to sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation claims.
When a company does not have effective working policies in place to manage such affairs, the fallout can be overwhelming, particularly in smaller companies. Remember, these problems affect companies of all sizes and of all types. Even when policies exist, workers can sue their company claiming that the policies were unclear, particularly when it comes to providing a definition of dating, relationship, and romance. The fact is that no matter what size your company that you maintain effective clear and enforceable policies that can help guide and manage these situations when they arise.
3. HOW TO HANDLE THESE ISSUES.
A. Make sure you have policies in place that address workplace relationships.
Under the current scenario where the workplace is and will continue to be an option for employees to become romantically involved, it is best to implement policies unequivocally outlining permissible and prohibited conduct concerning dating among employees. To this end, companies are all over the place as to what they allow and what they do not allow. To a large extent, the course of action taken is dependent upon the type of industry, culture, and physical layout of the corporate workplace which are all factors to be considered in establishing your company's policy.
Suffice to say that a good starting point for any policy would have to include a prohibition against supervisors dating subordinates. These kinds of relationships are rarely a good situation for any employer and have the effect of putting a lit stick of dynamite in the hands of the human resources department. Some companies disallow relationships with vendors too. This situation presents another whole treasure trove of potential problems for employers. Make sure that the specific policies regarding workplace relationships tie in with your company's sexual harassment policies and vice versa.
B. Preparation of "Love Contracts."
You would think that love and contracts don't go together. If you are an employer looking for another defense to a sexual harassment claim then this is maybe a viable option for your company. Simply put, love contracts are contracts that are entered into between employees and employers once the relationship has been revealed to the employer. In essence, a love contract is nothing other than an employee giving his or her consent to the existing relationship conduct. Love contracts, to the extent that they are employed in corporate workplaces, serve to remind employees of the conduct that is appropriate in the workplace referencing, of course, the policies outlined in the employment manual or handbook). These contracts also provide an acknowledgment that the relationship is consensual thus providing an employer with the additional defense of consent should the employee later sue the company for sexual harassment or any related actions.
C. The Love Contract itself.
If your company decides to employ love contracts make sure that they restate any existing sexual harassment policies and that the contract includes language that obligates each employee to conform to the anti-harassment policies. Secondly, reaffirm that the relationship is consensual. As an employer, you need to make sure that you prohibit any kind of workplace affection. Sometimes acts of affection between two employees, particularly on an ongoing basis, making for a hostile work environment for other employees. Lastly, the contract should reaffirm commitment to the professional standards of the company and that by having such a relationship there will be no negative impact on work.
Breaking up is always hard to do and given the recent attention paid to sexual harassment claims, it just might be a good time for your company to revisit its policies in this area. A company's legal interests are always best served by getting ahead of any problem through planning and preparation. At the Katz Law Group, we have been providing employers with sound, practical advice for 35 years. We look forward to hearing from you.