Love is in the air – which could bring claims of sexual harassment and discrimination.  As Valentine’s Day approaches, employers should be mindful of office romances:

  • Statistics show that more than 20% of married couples met at work, yet nearly half of those employees reported that they did not know if their company had a policy on office romances.
  • According to a recent survey by Monster Worldwide, 59% of employees admitted that they have been involved in an office romance.
  • An additional 64% answered that they would be willing to do so if the opportunity arose.
  • Yet, 75% of employers do not have a policy regarding workplace relationships.
  • AshleyMadison.com (a dating site for married people looking to cheat – yikes!) reports that 46% percent of men and 37% percent of women have had an affair with a co-worker. Among these cheaters, 72% percent of women and 59% percent of men say that they had their first encounter with the affair partner at a company holiday party … which means now is the time for employers to pay attention!

In this three-part series, learn (1) the potential risks to employers from workplace relationships, (2) how to draft an office romance policy, and (3) what steps to take to head off potential litigation.  Part I addresses the negative consequences that office romances can pose to unprepared employers.

What’s the Harm?

While consensual office relationships are more commonplace than in the past, they can trigger business and legal headaches for employers when the relationship fizzles or is no longer consensual.  Moreover, fellow employees may feel resentful, jealous, uncomfortable, or intimidated (especially in relationships between a supervisor and a subordinate), leading to complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation.

Importantly, claims may be brought not only by the individuals in the relationship, but even by third parties.  Complaints of “paramour favoritism” are on the rise and are being filed by employees who allege they are overlooked due to preferential treatment towards a co-worker who is engaged in a romantic relationship with the boss.  While courts differ on whether such claims are meritorious, turning a blind eye to such relationships may result in business interruption and liability.

In 2011, for example, the EEOC reported that 11,364 charges of sexual harassment were filed, and 16.3% of those were filed by men.  These charges are quite costly to employers – the EEOC recovered over $52 million in damages for sexual harassment claims in 2011.  Employers might not be able to prevent love in the office, but you can take action to mitigate potential liability.  An important initial measure is to draft a good policy depending on your company’s size, structure, business goals, and culture.  Make sure that, if you implement an office dating policy, you  enforce it uniformly and take appropriate and equal action for violations of the policy.