United States: Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, I'm Prepared To Deal With Office Romances, How 'Bout You?

Valentine's Day is a day of love and romance for many, often times between co-workers. For employers, it provides a fitting opportunity to re-examine workplace romance and sexual harassment policies. Indeed, there is no better time to ensure sure that your personnel policies adequately address office relationships, and more importantly the fallout from failed relationships. With Valentine's Day fast-approaching, we have compiled a list of tips to safely guide employers through the office romance minefield.

Don't Impose a Blanket Ban on Office Romances

Dealing with office relationships, and the associated gossip and fallout, requires employers to walk a delicate tightrope. An outright ban on workplace romances, however, is rarely effective and inadvisable from both a logistical and practical perspective.

The reality for most employers is that employees will fraternize, both during and after work hours, and, inevitably, some will develop romantic relationships. Accepting this reality and taking proactive steps to ensure that all employees enjoy a safe work environment will yield better results than attempting to altogether eliminate romances in the first place. Banning office romances may also mean that an employer will be forced to discipline and potentially discharge otherwise capable employees, lest the employer be accused of not enforcing its personnel policies.

Moreover, in some states, like California, an outright ban on workplace romances may be illegal insofar as it conflicts with an employee's right to privacy outside of the office.

So What Can Employers do about Office Romances?

Although outright bans on office romances should be avoided, other personnel policies can shield or limit employers from legal exposure and protect their workforce. Some companies, for instance, implement policies that require disclosure of workplace relationships and attempt to limit any associated conflicts of interest (for example, by re-assigning an employee romantically involved with his/her supervisor). Policies that remind employees to maintain professionalism in the workplace – e.g., no blatant sexual behavior, kissing, or cuddling on the job – can also be effective. Whatever policies are ultimately adopted, extending them to encompass relationships not only between co-workers, but also between workers and vendors or contractors engaged by the company, is important.

So-called "love contracts" can also provide value. In essence, a "love contract" acknowledges that the employees are engaged in a consensual relationship, that the relationship will not interfere with the work environment, that no employment decisions will be affected by the relationship, and that both employees agree to abide by the company's sexual harassment policy. Although not necessarily a panacea in the event a sexual harassment claim is filed, the "love contract" can help establish that, as far as the employer was aware, the relationship was consensual and the employees involved both had knowledge of the harassment policy.

Sexual Harassment Policies are a Must

Unfortunately, many workplace romances fail, sometimes leading to allegations of sexual harassment. In other instances, claims of harassment arise when one employee romantically over-pursues a co-worker. Because of this, sexual harassment policies are an absolute must for all employers.

Sexual harassment policies should be clear about the conduct they prohibit (if possible, provide examples) and also prescribe a clear complaint procedure for employees to lodge grievances. This procedure should identify specific individuals to contact in the event an employee believes that (s)he is being harassed. If feasible, an anonymous 1-800 hotline may also be effective to combat harassment. These avenues for complaint should be clearly communicated to all employees. Harassment policies should also establish a standard procedure for investigating complaints of wrongdoing.

Because an uncommunicated and unenforced sexual harassment policy does little good, training employees about harassment is critical. Indeed, it is strongly encouraged, and in many states legally required, that employees receive regular training on these issues (and Valentine's Day provides a great opportunity to broach this subject). This training should touch upon all relevant company policies and legal requirements, and explain in detail the procedure for making a complaint. Wherever possible, conduct separate training sessions for managers and lower-level workers.

Finally, in the event a sexual harassment complaint is made, promptly investigate and effectively resolve the claims. If you discover evidence substantiating the complaint, take immediate action to correct the harassing behavior. These actions may absolve or at least reduce corporate liability.

Avoid Valentine's Day Parties

As with other office holiday parties, employers considering whether to throw Valentine's Day parties should proceed with caution. The most prudent approach, of course, is to simply not have a Valentine's Day party – you save money, dodge possible headaches, and can just make the next company event that much better. If you do throw a party, reinforce your employment policies before the festivities begin, moderate the flow of alcohol at the party itself, and promptly investigate any post-party complaints of inappropriate behavior.

What Does This Mean for My Company?

Valentine's Day evokes images of hearts, chocolate, and epic romances. For employers, however, it is an opportune time to re-visit your workplace romance and sexual harassment policies, and to remind employees about appropriate workplace behavior. Employers with concerns should contact counsel to discuss these and related matters.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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