Just as new parents scramble to babyproof their homes when they have a toddler by making sure the toddler doesn’t touch a hot stove or electrical outlet, eat the dog’s food or ruin their sibling’s homework, it is critical for employers to loveproof their workplaces and protect them from cupid’s arrow, especially when an imbalance of power is involved. Failing to take the appropriate precautions, may lead an employer to red hot trouble.
Workplace romances present a host of unique risks and challenges. McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was recently thrown out for engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee in violation of a company policy banning managers from having romantic relationships with direct or indirect reports. Additionally, Best Buy recently investigated claims that the CEO engaged in romantic relationship with a company executive.
In this #MeToo era, with a focus on sexual harassment and proper workplace conduct, it is essential for employers to set ground rules and properly monitor and manage romantic relationships before they cause problems for the organization.
Here are 10 ways to loveproof your workplace.
1. Understand the Risk of Harm
From the outset, it is critical to recognize the problems workplace romance can create, including:
• Decreased employee productivity;
• Inappropriate sharing of confidential information; and/or
• A negative effect on workplace morale.
A coworker may continually make romantic gestures that are unrequited. Lovers may engage in inappropriate behavior or public displays of affection making others feel uncomfortable and leading to a hostile work environment claim. Additionally, an employer may face sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuits because conduct that was welcome during a relationship becomes unwelcome when it ends.
Romantic relationships with customers or clients can also jeopardize the organization or result in the disclosure of the employer’s confidential information. HR and employers must take note of these risks and understand the negative effect romantic relationships can have on the workplace.
2. Recognize the Dangers of Supervisor/Subordinate Relationships
Risks are enhanced when a supervisor and a subordinate are dating as an employer may face claims of favoritism, preferential treatment or discrimination by co-workers. Also, an employer may be strictly liable for any supervisory harassment or retaliation after the relationship ends regardless of whether the employer knew about the harassment.
3. Establish a Workplace Romance Policy
Because it is impractical to ban all workplace relationships, it is necessary to put a policy place and set ground rules for relationships. The workplace romance policy should:
• State whether the employer will permit workplace relationships;
• State whether employees will be required to report such relationships;
• Confirm the employer’s right to make employment decisions, such as scheduling, shift or reporting changes, to accommodate relationships; and
• Provide guidelines for appropriate and inappropriate workplace conduct during work time and off duty, including public displays of affection.
Because of the enhanced risks of supervisor/subordinate relationships, an employer may seek to ban these all together.
4. Create Strong EEO Policies
Strong equal employment opportunity (EEO) policies with respect to harassment, discrimination and retaliation can help protect your company with respect to workplace relationships. Make sure to distribute these policies and incorporate them into the employee handbook. The policies should clearly describe conduct rising to the level of actionable discrimination, harassment or retaliation. In particular, the harassment policy should:
• Define proper workplace conduct by providing clear examples;
• Provide a broad definition of harassment to include verbal, written and physical conduct as well as conduct via social media and the internet;
• Explain the fine line between compliments or flirtation and inappropriate touching;
• Establish a multichannel complaint procedure;
• Notify employees that the employer takes complaints seriously and will investigate them; and
• Ensure that employees who bring complaints or participate in investigations are not retaliated against.
5. Avoid Conflicts of Interest
An employer should implement a conflicts of interest policy obligating employees to disclose any actual or potential conflict of interest that would adversely affect their judgment, objectivity or loyalty to the employer or to their work. Conflicts of interest may arise in the context of a relationship with a co-worker, supervisor, subordinate, customer or client.
6. Institute Employee Training
To avoid potential problems and minimize liability, it is essential for employers to provide regular training to employees and supervisors on their workplace relationship policy as well as their discrimination, harassment and retaliation policies.
It is not enough to have the policies on the books, employees and supervisors must understand the policies and their application to actual situations. In fact, an increasing number of states are now mandating sexual harassment training. Training should cover what is considered appropriate and inappropriate workplace behavior and provide workplace romance guidelines and boundaries of workplace conduct.
Training on proper social media use is also helpful with respect to minimizing the risk of harassment when it comes to social media.
7. Create a Complaint System
It is important to develop and implement a multichannel complaint system allowing employees to bring complaints to various members of management, whether it be complaints regarding harassment, discrimination, retaliation, inappropriate relationships or conflicts of interest affecting the workplace. Employees must feel comfortable that they will not be retaliated against for notifying the employer of their concerns regarding unfair treatment or improper conduct.
8. Respond to Complaints
Don’t let complaints regarding sexual harassment, discrimination or favoritism arising out of a romantic relationship linger. It is essential to immediately address them by documenting complaints and initiating investigations using neutral and unbiased investigators.
During the course of the investigation, be sure to gather evidence, interview witnesses and attempt to find out what happened. The employer must take all reasonable steps to end or prevent further harassment from occurring. This includes imposing interim measures and discipline if warranted.
9. Monitor Relationships
Once aware of a romantic relationship, either between coworkers or between a supervisor and a subordinate, closely monitor the relationship to ensure it is truly voluntary and consensual and that discriminatory treatment and favoritism does not occur.
An employer may need to consider changing reporting lines and transferring a supervisor or subordinate to avoid any conflict of interest, or to prevent a supervisor from abusing their position of authority. Further, an employer may need to restrict employees from engaging in unprofessional public displays of affection or having couple time interfere with work. Careful monitoring of workplace relationships will ensure that all co-workers feel comfortable and reduce distracting workplace conduct.
10. Utilize Love Contracts
Consider having dating employees sign a love contract indicating that the employees are voluntarily engaged in a romantic relationship, that the relationship will not affect the workplace, and that the participants are aware of the employer’s sexual harassment policies.
This will memorialize the consensual nature of the relationship and help protect the employer from future harassment claims. It also will limit employer liability in the event the romantic relationship ends and set guidelines on appropriate workplace behavior.