According to a recent CareerBuilder survey, four in ten people admitted to dating a co-worker, and one-third eventually married that person.  Whether a relationship between peers, relationships between supervisors/subordinates, flings, long-term relationships, or extramarital affairs, office romances can lead to unwelcome complaints and expensive lawsuits.

Part 1 of this three-part series addressed the potential risks that office romances pose to companies, and Part 2 covered the importance of adopting and enforcing a company policy addressing fraternization.  This final installment offers recommended steps you should take now to defend potential claims of discrimination and harassment.

Tips for Employers

Employers should prepare and implement a clear policy regarding office relationships or update an existing one, and be sure to disseminate it and obtain employees’ acknowledgements.   The policy should address to extent to which office relationships are permissible, and, if appropriate, require employees to promptly disclose the existence (or termination) of a romantic or sexual relationship to a designated member of Human Resources or management. When the employees involved are in a supervisor/subordinate relationship, disclosure is especially critical so that the employer may effectively address the impact of the relationship (e.g., evaluating if it is necessary to change job duties or reassign the employee(s)).

If harassment occurs despite an employer’s best efforts to prevent and stop it, you will have a strong defense if you can demonstrate that you have done the following:

  • Implement and enforce a sexual harassment and office romance policy that provides a clear reporting channel and prohibits retaliation for good faith complaints.
  • Respect employees’ reasonable expectations of privacy regarding their relationship in line with the company policies.
  • Train new and existing employees on the sexual harassment policy and document the training.
  • Train managers on what constitutes sexual harassment and how to handle complaints. Train employees to report inappropriate behavior.
  • If a relationship develops between a manager and his/her subordinate, transfer one of them if possible to eliminate a direct reporting relationship.
  • Promptly and thoroughly investigate complaints.
  • Take appropriate corrective action to address prior incidents of sexual harassment.

Regardless of the type of policy your company adopts, be sure to customize it to the needs and actual practices of your business.  Train employees and managers on expectations governing office romances.  A well-drafted and uniformly enforced fraternization (or non-fraternization) policy will not prevent workplace relationships altogether, but it can protect you if you encounter office romances.