Managing the Risks of Cupid's Arrows in the Workplace
For many, Valentines Day is just another Hallmark holidayan excuse to shower the ones we love with chocolates, flowers, and mushy cards. But not everyone looks forward to February 14and its not just bitter singles. Employers, too, have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the most romantic day of the year.
Kim Seten, a partner in the Kansas City office of management-side employment firm Constangy, Brooks & Smith, advises employers to discourage employees from celebrating the holiday in the workplace. Valentines Day is perceived as a holiday for romance, she says, and even the most well-meaning manager or boss who wants to pass out cards or candy can give an employee the perception that its of a romantic nature.
Seten says there are few, if any, Valentines cards that would be appropriate for a supervisor to give an employee. Most cards either contain risqué material or would otherwise create the impression that the senders intentions are romantic.
If an employer insists on celebrating Valentines Day, Seten says they should bring a box of candy and put it in the break room for everyone to share.
The same advice goes for messages delivered in a social media setting. Just as physical cards are discouraged, Seten advises employers not to post equivalent content on a workers Facebook wall or LinkedIn page. Valentines Day is a good time for employers and in-house lawyers to remind employees that what we do on social media can have an impact in the workplace, says Seten.
They may also want to review their policies governing workplace relationships more generally. The reality of romance between coworkers has become a foregone conclusion in the workplace. In a recent survey by CareerBuilder.com, 39 percent of respondents said they had dated a fellow employee at least once during their career.
Seten says that because employees spend so much time at work, dating among coworkers is even more typical now than it was 15 or 20 years ago. I think all employers should acknowledge that dating in the workplace is a possibility, she says, and then decide how they want to handle that issue.
Depending on a host of factors, some employers will still opt not to permit workplace relationships at all. If there are employees who are working at night without supervision, they might not feel comfortable allowing workplace romances, says Seten.
But practically speaking, Seten says it usually isnt realistic to enact a blanket ban on dating among coworkers. So instead, she says, employers should think about how they want to address the situation. Handling workplace romance effectively, she says, starts with having a good harassment and discrimination policyone that encompasses sexual harassment. She advises employers to educate their workforce about what constitutes inappropriate conduct, be it in or outside the context of a romantic relationship.
The vast majority of sexual harassment claims are brought by women and are filed against men. But with women increasingly becoming managers and supervisors, Seten is starting to see more cases filed by men. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, men made up about 18 percent of claimants in fiscal year 2012, up two percent from the previous year. Seten says that charges brought by people claiming to have been sexually harassed by a person of the same gender are also on the rise.
Many employers have their employees sign whats know as a love contract when they choose to date at work. Its a document that a company can create, hopefully with the assistance of counsel, that the two individuals in the relationship sign, acknowledging that the relationship is consensual, says Seten. If one party later claims they were coerced into the relationship, the document offers the employer some evidence to dispute a potential legal claim.
Seten says some companies will go a step further with the contract, requiring the couple to notify the employer of a romance gone bad. She notes that by being aware of changes in relationship status, an employer can then monitor the couple for a period of time after the relationship ends.
And then theres the biggest potential trouble spot in the realm of office romance: What should an employer do about a relationship between a supervisor and their subordinate?
Of those respondents to the CareerBuilder.com survey who had dated coworkers, 29 percent said they have dated someone above them in the chain of command. Seten recommends that employers prohibit relationships between supervisors and their direct reports. And if they do allow them, she says a love contract should absolutely be required.
Frankly, I think if you dont prohibit it, youre just asking for a world of problems.
Whichever way Cupids arrows strike in the workplace, its key for HR and in-house counsel to have policies and plans in place to manage the potential fallouton Valentines Day and the other 364 days of the year.