Editor's Note: The following was submitted on behalf of Fisher & Phillips LLP.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and love is in the air. Laws of attraction and proximity make it easy for workplace romance to blossom. Often one thing leads to another, and before employers know it—after the love— a lawsuit is in the air.
“With the lines between working time and personal time becoming increasingly blurred, employees are more likely to find love among their co-workers. These office romances can often lead to lawsuits, however, particularly if they end badly,” explains James J. McDonald, Jr., managing partner at Fisher & Phillips’ Irvine, Calif. office. “Employers can protect themselves from litigation by taking some precautions.”
Fisher & Phillips LLP specializes in labor and employment law, and represents a wide variety of national and regional employers. The firm’s Irvine office recommends the employers consider the following when addressing romance in the workplace:
Young Love: Why Gen X and Gen Y Employees May Pose a Risk. Office romances tend to be more common in businesses that employ younger workers. Compared to older generations who were used to punching in and out, for many young people the boundaries between work and personal time are blurred. They wake up checking their smart phones and they share their updates throughout the day on their social media pages. Their dating rituals involve texting and “hooking up.” Co-workers are often “friends” and “friends” sometimes become lovers—until someone clicks the “unlike” key.
Legislating Love: The Impact of Company-wide Policies for Workplace Romance. A policy against fraternization should be in the employee handbook, but simply having a policy is not enough. These policies help, but employers can only go so far toward legislating who can fall in love and who can’t. Employers must decide what the consequences for noncompliance with company policy will be, and enforce them without bias.
Forbidden Romance Between Boss and Subordinate. It’s important for employers to implement a policy that prohibits managers and subordinates from engaging in romantic relationships. Otherwise, the risk is that supervisors who have office affairs with subordinates may become the subject of a sexual harassment suit if the subordinate later claims to have been coerced or pressured into the relationship for fear of his/her job. This happens quite typically when this type of relationship ends.
Strike up a Romance, Sign a Contract. There are people who really do fall in love and have legitimate relationships with co-workers. In these cases, a growing number of companies require the employees involved to sign consensual relationship agreements, a.k.a. “love contracts,” which state that the relationship is voluntary, thus reducing the employer’s exposure to harassment claims. These contracts can prevent a jilted subordinate employee from claiming that he or she was coerced into having an affair with the boss.
Avoiding Favoritism Claims. To avoid perceived favoritism and related claims, if the boss is dating an employee, they must not take on a managerial role for the subordinate in regards to promotions, raises, evaluations, etc. In these cases, bosses are advised to request that another manager take that role to eliminate the perception of favoritism.