With Valentine’s Day approaching, what better topic than workplace romance.
When a workplace romance ends, it can have all kinds of repercussions. For example, the dumped co-worker might attempt to woo back their former lover, and those attempts could be viewed as contributing to a hostile work environment if the attention is no longer welcome.
More concerning is when the relationship involves a supervisor or a higher-ranking colleague and a subordinate or lower-ranking employee. In such instances, the employee in the less powerful position might claim that the romantic advances were never welcomed. They may argue that any “consent” to the relationship was actually due to coercion, fear of demotion or termination, or in response to a promised promotion or other preferential treatment.
Implications of workplace romance aren’t limited to the end of the relationship. They can include issues like:
- public displays of affection;
- inappropriate sharing of confidential company information between romantic partners;
- inappropriate gossiping among co-workers;
- less productivity from the couple and their colleagues;
- claims of favoritism;
- poor employee morale; and
- damage to the business because the pairing may be seen as unprofessional.
What courses of action are available to employers, given the stakes that are involved?
Workplace Romance Policy
One option is to implement a workplace romance policy. Some workplace romance policies forbid romances between employees with significantly different rank, such as prohibiting supervisors from dating people who report directly to them. Other policies ban workplace dating entirely.
Workplace romance policies should clearly state that romantic relationships between co-workers are not the company’s business unless the office romance affects the workplace.
Employers should also be mindful of unintended consequences that workplace romance policies may have. There’s always the possibility that employees will date and keep it a secret. In the event that harassment occurs, the victim may hesitate to report it for fear of being disciplined for violating the workplace romance policy.
Another option is a “love contract” (or “consensual relationship agreement”). A love contract is an agreement where, in theory, employees disclose office romances while protecting their employer from liability if the relationship ends.
The terms of love contracts are fairly robust, and typically include terms addressing:
- the voluntary nature of the couple’s relationship;
- compliance with the employer’s anti-harassment policy;
- termination of the relationship;
- expected workplace behavior; and
- modification of reporting relationships.
A lot of employers are drawn to the idea that love contracts can reduce any risks associated with sexual harassment lawsuits.
Love contracts, however, don’t entirely protect employers from liability. The romantic relationships most likely to cause problems for an employer are those in which the participants will be least likely to self-report and sign a love contract (i.e., affairs).
The greater benefit of love contracts is that they help employers maintain a functional office environment. This can be done by reminding the couple to behave professionally and securing the couple’s agreement to keep public displays of affection out of the workplace.
Employers who ultimately do opt for the use of love contracts must recognize that requiring a love contract is no substitute for having a well-implemented policy against sexual harassment. This includes appropriate training for all levels of staff and management and a sound enforcement program.