How Businesses Can Avoid Liability from Workplace Relationships

Diana Uhimov, February 13, 2015.

Workplace relationships may be initiated at any time of the year, but the romantic theme of Valentine’s Day can lead to inappropriate behavior that employees might not otherwise engage in.  That makes February an opportune time for companies to reevaluate their policies on office romance and harassment, and to remind employees of the rules.

A recent survey by Career Builder found that 37% of workers have dated a coworker.  But when intraoffice relationships sour, employers can be subjected to legal claims of discrimination and sexual harassment, as well as complaints of favoritism.  But an outright prohibition on workplace romance is impractical and unrealistic, and may violate the right to privacy in some jurisdictions.  Therefore, employers must manage workplace relationships in a way that limits their liability and helps protect their employees.

Sexual harassment policies that set forth with particularity the prohibited conduct are essential for employers, but it’s not enough to establish a policy. There must be clear procedures in place for the investigation of complaints and consistent enforcement of the policy. To ensure enforcement, workers should have several safe and comfortable avenues for voicing sexual harassment complaints. If, for example, all complaints must be directed to a supervisor, and the supervisor is the offender, it is unlikely that the employee will speak up. When employers are made aware of issues early on, it provides an opportunity to take corrective action, reducing or even potentially eliminating the employer’s legal liability. An anonymous method for submitting grievances would be most effective, if feasible. Additionally, training supervisors on detecting the warning signs can bolster the uniform enforcement of sexual harassment policies.

While banning all romantic relationships is not realistic, companies should ban romantic relationships between supervisors and their subordinates.  A relationship with a subordinate calls into question the supervisor’s objectivity, potentially affecting decisions about pay, promotions or other terms of employment. And in the event that the workplace relationship fails, subordinates who then face adverse employment action, or feel they’ve received unfair treatment may allege they’ve been discriminated against.  Furthermore, if coworkers believe that another worker is receiving special treatment because of a relationship with a manager, employers may be perceived as biased, damaging company morale.

Several options exist for minimizing liability that may arise from the fallout from workplace romance. It is wise for companies to require disclosure of workplace relationships and to reassign employees when the relationship could lead to a conflict of interest. It is also recommended that companies prohibit any unprofessional conduct that could be viewed as offensive such as, public displays of affection. Another tool companies may utilize to help shield themselves from harassment claims is a “love contract”, wherein romantically involved employees promise that the relationship will not affect the work environment or employment decisions, and agree to comply with the sexual harassment and relation policies. This can help the employer establish that the relationship was consensual and that workers affirmed that they would follow company policy.   Whatever policies the company may choose should extend beyond relationships between coworkers and cover worker-vendor, worker-client, and worker-contractor relationships as well.

With so much of peoples’ lives spent at work, many social relationships are developed at the workplace, and office romances are inevitable. Thus, regardless of the size or type of business, having policies in place to address this situation will allow employers to be prepared.




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