Flowers, chocolate, and strongly-worded legal complaints: these are all signs of romance in the workplace. Many people find their significant other at work, but employers understand that love can be complicated. When romance blossoms in the office, employers face challenges such as gossip, relationship conflicts, and decreased productivity. In more serious cases, this can even lead to issues like sexual harassment, retaliation, favoritism, and workplace violence. This list of risks might make you feel uneasy, for all the wrong reasons.
Potential Risks for Employers in Workplace Romances
Sexual Harassment Claims
Sexual harassment claims often arise when romantic relationships form between supervisors and subordinates. However, these claims can also occur between colleagues if one person’s affection is not reciprocated or if a relationship turns sour. Employees may allege that they were mistreated after ending a relationship or rejecting unwanted advances from a superior. This is especially true if the employee is later terminated or denied a promotion. Additionally, a coworker relationship that ends badly may lead to harassment claims if one person continues to pursue the other.
Even in consensual relationships, public displays of affection can create an uncomfortable atmosphere for colleagues. This may result in third parties filing hostile work environment claims.
Employees may claim that they faced retaliation after reporting unwelcome romantic advances or other forms of harassment. If employees experience negative treatment after filing a complaint, they may assert that they hesitated to report the conduct due to fears of retaliation or the belief that the employer wouldn’t take their complaints seriously.
Romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates can lead to accusations of sexual favoritism. Individuals involved in a relationship may feel that they receive special treatment because of their romantic involvement, which can create the perception that romantic engagement is a job requirement. Other employees may believe that a supervisor’s partner receives unfair advantages in their professional life.
In extreme cases, failed or unrequited romantic relationships can escalate to workplace violence. Apart from the human toll, employers may face liability if they failed to identify or properly address the risk of violence.
Minimizing Risks from Workplace Romance
While an outright ban on workplace relationships may seem like a solution, it is often impractical. Instead, employers can implement various policies and procedures to mitigate risks. Consider the following strategies:
Bar Relationships Between Supervisors and Subordinates
Supervisor and subordinate relationships carry the highest risk of sexual harassment claims. However, prohibiting these specific relationships is more manageable than banning all romances in the workplace. Implementing a workplace romance policy that addresses supervisor and subordinate relationships can effectively communicate expectations in this area.
Implement Love Contracts
A love contract is an agreement between two employees who confirm that their relationship is consensual and free from any form of sexual harassment. Love contracts also serve as reminders to dating employees to maintain professionalism in the workplace. Employers can use love contracts as a tool to reduce liability by ensuring that known relationships are consensual, addressing problematic behaviors, and fostering a comfortable work environment.
Provide Sexual Harassment Training and Reporting Channels
Sexual harassment training programs, which are now mandatory in some states, can significantly reduce liability. Additionally, offering easily accessible reporting channels, such as anonymous hotlines, helps address previously unknown incidents and reduces employee concerns about reporting harassment due to fears of retaliation.
Communicate About Communications Monitoring
Digital communications often become a medium for harassment, especially via employer-provided devices and networks. With remote work becoming increasingly common, ensuring proper communication is essential. Employers can implement a communications monitoring policy and regularly remind employees that their communication channels are monitored. This serves as an effective detection tool and a deterrent against the misuse of company technology.
Dealing with Workplace Romance Challenges
When workplace romances go wrong, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and courts consider the preventative measures and policies that employers have in place, as well as whether those measures were diligently followed. Employers who have robust preventive measures and effective follow-up procedures are better equipped to defend themselves. Practical Law’s suite of tools, including workplace romance policies, love contracts, and sexual harassment prevention materials, can assist employers in implementing preventive measures and addressing issues before they escalate into legal disputes.
Find out more about how Practical Law can help employers navigate workplace romances and other legal concerns. Visit Garrity Traina for additional information.
This post was created with the assistance of our Practical Law labor and employment attorney-editors. Given the constantly evolving nature of these issues, the best way to stay updated is by relying on our team of 300+ full-time attorney-editors.