The season of love, hearts, roses, and chocolate treats is upon us, again. And, again, we take this opportunity to remind employers of the need to consider and address the risks associated with “office romance”. Regardless of where employees work, and whether employees are work-at-home or actually in the office, the combination of workplace hierarchies and matters of the heart can be complicated. Those complications include potential sexual harassment and discrimination claims, complaints of favoritism, and general issues related to employee morale.
Employers have taken a variety of different strategies to address office romances, and there is no one-size-fits all approach. Some employers expressly prohibit any and all types of romantic relationships. Others only prohibit relationships with direct or indirect subordinates. Still others discourage dating between employees and require the employees to disclose the relationship to management. While others require that employees involved in intimate relationships sign a “love contract,” affirming the voluntary and consensual nature of the relationship, acknowledging the company’s anti-harassment and retaliation policies, confirming that neither employee has been forced, harassed, or threatened into the relationship, establishing appropriate and professional office behavior during the relationship and after if it ends, and requiring the employees to report the end of the consensual relationship to human resources. Finally, some employers ignore or do not directly address the issue at all.
Here are some tips to consider when addressing employees about office romance:
- Focus on the most problematic issue(s) or those that pose the highest risk(s)
- Focus on facts related to the issue – do not jump to conclusions or use gossip as the basis for the discussion
- Remind the employees involved of relevant company policies and compliance expectations
- Remind the employees involved of the need to keep workplace interactions professional – for example, employees should limit affectionate displays and romantic expressions while “at work”
- Remind employees of their continued duty to promptly report any act or statement that they find offensive or harassing by their romantic partner and the company’s policy against any retaliation
- Remind the employees that there is no right to privacy on employer-owned media (e.g., an employer’s email system, instant messaging or virtual meeting platform)
- If there is a direct reporting relationship between the employees, consider reassigning one or both employees to eliminate certain inherent power inequity issues associated with the manager/subordinate relationship
These issues can certainly be tricky. So, for assistance navigating the organizational heartache of the office romance, developing related policies, or any other employment law issue, please contact a member of our Employment Law & Labor Relations Department.