It’s almost Feb. 14, a favorite day for greeting-card manufacturers, chocolate companies and, in some cases, couples. It’s also as good a time as any for employers to check on their policies and practices involvin workplace romance and dating.
It’s hard to avoid workplace romance altogether. The reality is that when employees are spending 40 hours a week or more together, a few love connections are bound to happen somewhere in the company. Luckily, some carefully thought-out policies can help employers avoid the legal and morale problems associated with relationships at work.
One major risk is the potential for favoritism, particularly if the relationship is happening between a supervisor and a subordinate. If an employee feels a co-worker is getting better treatment or perhaps got a promotion because the co-worker is more than just friends with the boss, that could lead to discrimination and hostile work environment claims.
Then there are issues that may arise after the relationship ends. Sometimes, when the love (or perhaps just lust) is gone, employers have had to deal with sexual harassment suits. Claims may include that the employee was told she could lose her job if she dumped her partner.
So what’s an employer to do? Roxanne Tashjian, an associate at Cullen and Dykman, says employers are trending away from banning dating and fraternizing between co-workers, realizing that this tends to be impractical and may create an unwanted culture of secrecy.
“The way that companies choose to protect themselves is by really putting into place procedures on interoffice dating and complaint procedures,” says Tashjian.
She explains that these policies should be issued to employees as part of the new hire orientation and may set out ground rules around issues such as public displays of affection in the workplace and not letting couples bring tensions and fights from outside of work into the office. Some companies might also want to include a provision giving the company the right to transfer to another department a worker who starts a relationship with his or her supervisor. “The last thing you want to do is have a situation come up, and you don’t have a policy and don’t know what to do,” Tashjian says.
If companies want to be extra cautious, they can have employees who are engaged in a relationship with one another enter into a so-called love contract. This might sound like a mutual declaration of love, but it’s actually a document geared toward protecting the parties and the employer for legal problems that could come from the relationship. The contract terms might include an agreement that the relationship is voluntary and consensual and that the relationship won’t have a disruptive or discriminatory impact on other co-workers.
Romantic? Not really. Practical? It could very well be.