More than ever, employers are facing serious claims arising from office romances. Part 1 of this three-piece series covered the potential claims, charges and lawsuits that may arise from workplace relationships. In this installment, learn why it is imperative to adopt a company policy addressing fraternization. Part 3 will address tips for employers to mitigate potential liability.
What Does Company Policy Say?
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, now is a good time for employers to update or create a policy governing dating among workers. While some policies prohibit romantic relationships altogether, many employers recognize that employees will date each other regardless of policy. In fact, they might “sneak around” to avoid violating the policy, which could create even more tension if the relationship is discovered or known only to a select few. Moreover, strict no-dating policies may be difficult to implement and enforce, as they may not clearly define the conduct that is forbidden (e.g., does the policy prohibit socializing, dating, romantic relationships, or something else?).
Some policies interdict dating among management and staff, while others specify that there is to be no fraternization with outside third parties to avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of impropriety. Still, other organizations mandate that employees who date one another voluntarily inform the company about their relationship.
In such cases, the notification policies direct employees to report their dating relationships to Human Resources, the EEOC officer, or a member of management, and they ask employees to sign a written consent regarding the romantic relationship. While this type of policy may seem intrusive, these documents are drafted to protect employers from unwanted complaints of future sexual harassment or retaliation.
When asking employees to sign consents, you should again advise them about the company’s sexual harassment policy and remind them about ramifications of policy violations. Document that the employees entered into the relationship voluntarily, were counseled and – if/when the relationship ends – include a memo in their respective personnel records that the relationship ended, and the employees were reminded about the company’s sexual harassment policy. You should require the dating parties to make certain written representations to shield the company from future claims:
- The individuals have entered the relationship voluntarily and the relationship is consensual.
- The employees will not engage in any conduct that makes others uncomfortable, intimidated, or creates a hostile work environment for other employees, guests, or third parties.
- The employees do not and will not make any decisions that could impact each other’s terms and conditions of employment.
- The employees will act professionally toward each other at all times, even after the relationship has ended.
- The relationship will not cause unnecessary workplace disruptions or distractions or otherwise adversely impact productivity.
- The employees will not retaliate against each other if/when the relationship ends.