They say that “love is in the air” around Valentine’s Day, but companies should avoid breathing it in too deeply. Because office romances are prevalent, employers should take proactive steps to reduce the liability of such romances that can lead to salacious allegations and expensive litigation. Companies must be equipped to handle office romances by updating or implementing policies regarding sexual harassment and its reporting procedures, no fraternization, and potentially “Love” or “Cupid” Contracts.
Employees often spend more time at the office than anywhere else. According to an American Time Use Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees ages 25 to 54 spend 8.9 hours at work (or on work-related activities) on an average work day. As a result, being surrounded by individuals with similar backgrounds, goals and interests often leads to Cupid’s arrow crossing cubicles. When love fades, companies can be exposed to claims of sexual harassment, hostile work environment and gender discrimination. Love is particularly a battlefield for the workplace when office romances involve supervisors and subordinates. If the terms and conditions of the subordinates’ employment change after the end of the romantic relationship, even if the reason is legitimate, a company can be exposed to claims of retaliation. A 2015 office romance survey conducted by Careerbuilder.com found that 37% of employees have dated a co-worker, and 24% of office romances involved a superior. It is no surprise, then, that human resources professionals are wary about employees dating one another. Therefore, it is vital that a company has policies in place to address office romances when they inevitably happen.
No Fraternization Policy
Companies should have established Sexual Harassment Policies that include a detailed employee complaint reporting procedure, provide training on the Sexual Harassment Policy and ensure that the policy is enforced uniformly. Employers should then consider implementing a No Fraternization Policy identifying when employees must report a romantic relationship to Human Resources and define the types of relationships that are permissible. For example, a company may prohibit romantic relationships between a supervisor and a subordinate employee especially if the subordinate employee’s terms and conditions of employment such as discipline, pay raises or advancement are affected by the decisions of the supervisor. Further, if a conflict of interest arises in the future, the company may require a transfer to avoid the conflict. The No Fraternization Policy may define the consequences of violating this policy including discipline up to and including discharge of employment.
Potential “Cupid” or “Love” Contracts
A Cupid or Love Contract is an agreement signed by both of the employees involved in the romantic relationship and memorializes that the relationship is entirely voluntary, consensual and is not based on intimidation, coercion or harassment. An effective Cupid or Love Contract should also state that neither employee will allow this romantic relationship (or the end of it) to negatively impact his or her work performance and that he or she will not engage in any unprofessional or inappropriate conduct toward the other either during or after the relationship. Each further agrees to notify Human Resources if this agreement is not honored or if one employee violates the Company’s Sexual Harassment Policy. Prior to signing the agreement, each must re-affirm that he or she will report perceived violations of the Sexual Harassment Policy through the company’s established reporting procedures and have a copy of the Sexual Harassment Policy attached to the agreement.
Although Cupid or Love Contracts are not infallible, they can be used as helpful evidence in litigation to show that an office romance was consensual at the time it was signed. These agreements can also help rebut vulgar allegations in a complaint extrapolated from fairly benign events, such as a simple compliment, that are often later distorted by a scorned paramour.
Valentine’s Day is around the corner; HRLegalist appreciates and even celebrates this special holiday, but we also understand what our readers do: love can be fickle, and companies must ensure that its policies and procedures addressing office romances are not.