In honor of Valentine's Day, when love is "in the air," it seems fitting to address an issue that affects employers every day: workplace romances.
At some point, an office or workplace romance will flourish at your place of business, if it has not already. It seems only logical since people spend large amounts of time together at work (most employees spend at least 160 hours per month at work), that relationships may develop outside the scope of normal business duties. The question then becomes, as an employer, how should a company handle these types of relationships?
First, as a rule of thumb, employees at the managerial and/or supervisor level should avoid office romances with subordinates. As with any romantic relationship, the odds that it will sour are high, and additionally, your company risks serious exposure to a sexual harassment lawsuit, even if the relationship was consensual. For instance, a subordinate employee could allege that she was afraid to lose her job if she did not participate in the relationship, regardless of whether that claim is true or not.
The most sensible position for any employer should most certainly be that employees should not engage in non-professional, romantic relationships with co-workers. To get this point across, many companies maintain an "anti-fraternization" policy to discourage these types of relationships. Despite best efforts, however, these types of policies do not always work. Although it can be helpful to have an anti-fraternization policy, it will not serve as a deterrent to individuals that are truly serious about exploring a non-work-related relationship with a co-worker.
Anti-fraternization policies may be totally disregarded by employees, and are difficult for employers to enforce. What then is the point of including such a policy in an employee handbook? At the very least, employers have a clear policy that has been communicated to employees which states that romantic relationships are discouraged (or forbidden entirely, depending on the policy language) and are a violation of company policy. If this does not work, what other options do you have as an employer to prevent a workplace romance from potentially leading to a lawsuit? The answer can be found in a newly developed idea that is becoming more common each day: The "love contract."
Employers are aware that workplace romances can, and in most instances, will cause problems. As such, when management learns of a workplace relationship, it is a good idea to have the employees involved sign what has become commonly known as the "love contract." This type of contract allows employees to put into writing the understanding that they are engaged in a consensual relationship. In addition to allowing employees to confirm that their relationship is consensual, it allows them to agree in writing that they will follow all company guidelines and policies dealing with harassment and discrimination. Further, the employees can agree that they will conduct themselves professionally at work, will not play favorites (particularly with each other at the expense of other employees), and will refrain from engaging in behavior that has no place in a work setting.
Workplace romances will happen, at some point or another. Incorporating anti-fraternization language into your policies, although a good idea, will not necessarily curb a relationship that does not want to be curbed. In extremely rare instances, your employees may even do a very good job of keeping the relationship a secret from everyone else, including management, and there will be no noticeable problems caused that can be attributed to the relationship. In a majority of cases however, the relationship will become common knowledge, and when that happens, consider sending in the "love contract" to protect yourself, especially once the love is gone.