Romance Heating Up the Workplace? Answers to Employers’ Burning Questions

Work romance between two business people holding a heartWith Valentine’s Day right around the corner, and love in the air, it is a good time for employers to revisit the issue of workplace romance. Whether employers like it or not, romance can and will bloom at work and co-workers may get hot and heavy.

We’d like to share some answers to burning questions an employer may have when romance heats up the workplace.

 

If two adults consent to having a relationship, and there are no laws against it, why should an employer care?

An employer needs to understand and prepare for the unique risks and challenges with respect to managing romance and dating in the workplace. Dating co-workers may share confidential workplace information or engage in inappropriate and unprofessional workplace behavior leading to:

  • Lower workplace productivity;
  • Lower morale; and
  • A hostile work environment.

After a relationship ends, an employer may face a sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuit by one of the employees, and tensions may disrupt the workplace. Risks are heightened when it comes to relationships between supervisors and subordinates, as an employer may face claims of favoritism, preferential treatment or discrimination by co-workers.

Outright banning of workplace relationships doesn’t seem practical. What are some guidelines we can put in place as an employer to best protect our interests?

It is difficult, if not impossible, for employers to ban workplace relationships, but it is essential for employers to take steps to protect themselves and minimize the risk of liability. Such steps include:

  • Implementing an employee dating and personal relationships policy or romantic and family relationships at work policy that will establish clear guidelines for appropriate workplace behavior, prohibit relationships between supervisors and subordinates or require that management be notified of relationships;
  • Monitoring and managing employee relationships to ensure that no discriminatory treatment, improper and/or unprofessional behavior or favoritism occurs or interferes with work;
  • Changing reporting lines or assignments if two individuals are involved in a relationship or transferring a supervisor or subordinate to avoid any conflict of interest;
  • Maintaining a conflicts of interest policy obligating employees to disclose any actual or potential conflict that would adversely affect judgment, objectivity or loyalty to the employer or to their work;
  • Instituting and enforcing strong policies prohibiting discrimination, retaliation and harassment;
  • Providing employees and supervisors with training on appropriate and inappropriate workplace conduct; and
  • Utilizing love contracts, which outline professional workplace behavior and require dating employees to state that the relationship is voluntary and consensual, and that if it ends they will not sue the employer for harassment or discrimination.

The National Labor Relations Board has been particularly active in regulating policies regarding workplace conduct – any affect here?

Employers need to be particularly careful as to how they word a dating and relationships policy or non-fraternization policy. In fact, the NLRB invalidated an employer’s policy stating that employees must not “fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with client’s employees or with co-employee” because:

  • The statement was overbroad; and
  • The term “fraternize” may be interpreted as prohibiting both romantic relationships as well as fraternal relationships, which may involve union activity and the protected discussion of wages, hours and working conditions.

What if employees who are dating or in a relationship refuse to sign a love contract?

An employer can’t force employees to sign a love contract as a condition of employment, but an employer may suggest it to protect everyone’s interests. Even if the individuals refuse to sign it, the employer can still enforce the dating and personal relationships policy, as well as any conflict of interest policy. In addition, an employer may ensure that employees continue to abide by the employer’s guidelines regarding appropriate workplace conduct.

Can an employer prohibit dating and relationships outside of the workplace? For example, may we prohibit an employee from dating someone who works at a vendor, client or business competitor?

While an employer may have a policy prohibiting employees from dating co-workers or supervisors, things become trickier when it comes to regulating off-duty conduct. However, an employer may enforce policies regarding conflicts of interest, which require employees to refrain from activities that cloud their professional judgment.

A senior male supervisor has started to date his female junior report. What are the best practices for managing this romance in the office?

An employer should change the reporting relationship as soon as possible and make sure neither that neither individual has influence over the other individual when it comes to workplace matters. The employer should make sure that any changes are as lateral as possible or else this may cause resentment, and possibly open the employer up to a claim of retaliation and discrimination by the individuals in the relationship or others outside the relationship. The employer should also consider having the employees sign a love contract and reminding them of the employer’s relevant workplace policies regarding dating and personal relationships, conflicts of interest, as well as discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

For more tips and strategies on how employers can manage workplace romance, download XpertHR’s white paper.

 

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