“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” Ryan Murphy’s latest installment of the FX true-crime anthology television series Impeachment: American Crime Story (Impeachment) takes viewers back to the 90s to relive the events that led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. The story employs a nonlinear timeline and is told through the eyes of the women at the center of the story. The series stars Clive Owen (Clinton), Beanie Feldstein (Monica Lewinsky), Sarah Paulson (Linda Tripp), Annaleigh Ashford (Paula Jones), and Edie Falco (Hillary Clinton).
The story is, of course, filled with high drama, high crimes, and misdemeanors. Clinton is accused of sexual harassment, assault, and various other inappropriate sexual relationships with his subordinate employees. In 1994, Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, filed a lawsuit against Clinton for sexual harassment, alleging that Clinton propositioned and exposed himself to her. One year later, White House intern Lewinsky begins an unpaid internship and ultimately a sexual relationship with Clinton.
Lewinsky is then transferred from her highly coveted White House position to a less desirable position at the Pentagon in 1996. While working at the Pentagon, Lewinsky meets Tripp, a former White House employee. Lewinsky and Tripp become fast friends—or so Lewinsky thinks. Lewinsky spills all the juicy details of her relationship with Clinton to Tripp. Naturally, Tripp begins recording all of her telephone conversations with Lewinsky.
In 1997, Lewinsky leaves the Pentagon and is referred by a Clinton advisor for several prestigious jobs. That same year, Lewinsky is subpoenaed in the Jones lawsuit. Subsequently, in 1998, Clinton denies having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky in deposition testimony for the Jones case. In the meantime, Tripp turns over the tapes of the conversations, and Lewinsky turns over the infamous blue dress. The rollercoaster finally comes to an end when Clinton is impeached for obstruction of justice and perjury, although he is acquitted on both counts.
Thankfully for employers, most workplace romances do not result in such theatrics. However, workplace relationships are not without legal risks. According to a 2021 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, more than one-third (34%) of U.S. workers have been involved in or are currently involved in a workplace romance. Contrary to what one would expect, remote work has definitely not put a damper on office romance, as the percentage of people involved in a workplace romance has actually increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given the prevalence of workplace relationships, employers should take measures to mitigate the potential risks. It is important to note that workplace relationships do not, by themselves, violate any employment laws. The most likely risk employers face is claims of sexual harassment, particularly if the relationship sours. Employers have several options on how to handle workplace relationships to mitigate the risks. They can prohibit workplace relationships completely, prohibit relationships between supervisors and subordinates, or prohibit interdepartmental relationships. Employers can also require employees in relationships to disclose them. In addition to disclosure, employers can require employees to sign a “love contract” that states the relationship is consensual and does not involve sexual harassment.