In keeping with the twelve days of Christmas, today let us imagine your company’s HR Manager is faced with two turtle doves. You are faced with one of the few animals that mate for life—not in the literal sense of more birds since we talked about partridges yesterday—but with a blossoming romance that started, you guessed it, in the office. So how do you handle office romances without creating legal liability for your organization?
Start With a Policy-
First, it is important to have a policy in place that discusses how you will, in fact, handle office romances. Recent studies show that only approximately a fourth of all companies have a workplace romance policy. However, if you fall into the remaining 75% it’s important that your company makes a conscious choice not to have one, and recognizes that potential liability that could be created by not adopting one.
Companies should have a realistic policy that can be uniformly applied. Accordingly, while some employers absolutely ban any type of office romance, sometimes it’s hard to keep two turtle doves away from each other. Things that should be included in the policy include a prohibition, a limit, or guidance on romantic relationships in the workplace and what the employer’s expectations are regarding the different types of relationships. You will likely want to identify different standards for supervisor/subordinate relationships, internal department relationships, and any other on the job relationships. The safest bet is to limit relationships that involve direct reports or with individuals who could advance a paramour’s career through promotions or raises. The policy should specify supervisors’ responsibilities and expectations as well as employees. Further you will likely want there to be disclosure of the relationship to HR or another appropriate individual and set forth clear consequences for the violation of the policy.
Analyze Your Risks-
Sexual Harassment-The most common risk is a claim of sexual harassment. While many romances will proceed without incident, if a break-up occurs and one party attempts to rekindle the romance and the feelings are not mutual, you could be faced with a sexual harassment claim.
Retaliation- Be prepared for potential claims by a partner or spouse that they are being retaliated against for protected acts performed by their partner. Or if you are dealing with a supervisor/subordinate relationship that ends poorly, the subordinate will likely have strong arguments in support of a retaliation claim if any adverse actions later occur on the job.
Favoritism- If you have a supervisor/subordinate romance be watchful of claims by third parties who are not a part of the relationship who may claim that the subordinate is receiving favoritism that other members of the team are not receiving.
In addition to potential legal liability, it is important to consider the practical implications. Employee morale and productivity can be adversely affected when individuals are speculating or gossiping about co-workers’ romantic relationships. There has been a proven rate of higher turn-over with individuals involved in an intra-office romance; a 2010 Vault.com survey found that 8% of employees reporting an office romance left the company because of the romance and 5% of employees reporting an office romance indicated the other person in the relationship left the company because of an office romance. Further, ethics problems and conflicts of interest can occur if you have a direct reporting relationship and questions regarding raises and advancement come into play.