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Office Romances and the “Love” Contract?

By Karen R. Glickstein

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned," spoken by Perez in Act 3, Scene 2, The Mourning Bride (1697). 

William Congreve's words (often misattributed to Shakespeare) might be paraphrased in the workplace to "Hell hath no fury like an office romance gone bad."  As Valentine's Day approaches, it is a good time for employers to review and revisit their office romance policies. While an actionable hostile environment exists only if the complainant can prove the conduct is "unwelcome," many office romances do not last and, if they end badly, create the potential for allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation that can adversely affect office morale and result in litigation.

According to a 2015 CareerBuilder survey, 37 percent of workers have dated a co-worker and, of those, 25 percent have dated someone higher in the organization, including a boss.  These numbers are not surprising given the amount of time employees spend at work as compared to at home or engaged in other activities.  While employers undoubtedly desire a workplace with a culture of compatibility, rancor - and potential liability - can develop from romantic relationships.  

Even when a supervisor is consensually involved with a subordinate employee, other members of the team may believe that their co-worker is receiving special treatment with respect to work assignments or other terms and conditions of employment.  While such a relationship is not illegal, it can create feelings of ill-will among co-workers that may affect corporate culture.  Perhaps more dangerous, however, is the potential liability if the relationship sours and the subordinate employee claims that the relationship was actually not consensual, but coerced, resulting in allegations of quid pro quo harassment, a hostile work environment and/or claims of retaliation.      

Employers should consider implementing policies outlining permissible and prohibited conduct concerning dating relationships with
co-workers.  These policies may prohibit relationships between those in supervisory/subordinate relationships, or between workers and vendors or clients.  The policy should reference the company's anti-harassment policy and remind employees how to report unwanted conduct.  The policy should detail alternatives if employees do engage in a relationship (such as the possibility of transfer to a new position with no reporting relationship or, if the policy is violated, discipline or discharge).  

And, although it may not be particularly romantic, companies should consider the use of "love contracts" for those situations where employees (especially those in supervisory/subordinate situations) are engaged in consensual relationships.  These contracts can be signed by all involved and remind both employees of the conduct that is appropriate in the workplace, and have both employees acknowledge that the relationship is consensual.