Business

Law column: How to handle an office romance

'Love contracts' are one option - but bring their own challenges

Wilford H. Stone, attorney-at-law, Lynch Dallas, Cedar Rapids
Wilford H. Stone, attorney-at-law, Lynch Dallas, Cedar Rapids

We spend nearly one-third of our adult lives at work. As a result, workplace romantic relationships are unavoidable.

According to a 2012 Stanford University study, 10 percent of people meet their spouses at work. Bill and Melinda Gates met on the job. (Full disclosure: so did my wife and I.)

In this day and age of massive jury verdicts and settlements for alleged sexual harassment and career-ending public allegations of sexual misconduct, however, what should an employer do when faced with an office romance?

There are several legal perils associated with workplace romances and dating in the workplace. The most legally significant factor is the “chain of command” or imbalance of power issue.

If a supervisor is dating a subordinate, there is always the risk of a “soured romance,” in which the subordinate later could claim that she or he was coerced into the relationship by the supervisor.

Given the state of the law and public mood, this can be a very costly lawsuit or settlement. The situation also could lead to retaliation claims if the subordinate employee is given poor performance reviews, disciplined or fired after the relationship ends.

In addition, when there is a power imbalance in a workplace relationship, co-workers outside the relationship may claim illegal discrimination because of favoritism shown to the subordinate employee in the relationship.

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Finally, even if you sidestep all of these land mines, the relationship may disrupt the workplace or cause morale to generally suffer.

What is an employer to do? The good news is an employer has several choices. Any of them would work, as long as the employer enforces it consistently.

One approach requires employees to report workplace relationships, sign an agreement stating that the relationship is consensual — sometimes referred to as a “love contract” by some employment lawyers — and confirm that they will follow the company’s anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.

Some “love contracts” also stipulate that the two employees in the relationship agree not to engage in certain behaviors, such as public displays of affection in the workplace or workplace retaliation if a relationship ends.

Because this method requires employees to report their romances to management, employees having an extramarital affair may be unlikely or unwilling to follow such a policy.

An employer also can implement a policy prohibiting dating within the chain of command. While this resolves the power imbalance issue, it raises all sorts of other related issues.

Those issues include whether the employer will have to grandfather any existing relationships and whether one of the parties will have to resign and leave the company.

Also, an employer could rely solely on its anti-harassment, anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies. Such policies prohibit sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation, and encourage employees to come forward with complaints.

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If an office romance does lead to alleged discrimination, harassment or retaliation, the employee must report the problem to the employer for resolution and allow the employer to investigate and take the appropriate remedial action.

If an employer takes this path, the employer must be sure that its anti-discrimination/harassment/retaliation policies are accurate and compete and that they are routinely updated to ensure compliance with the law — a good practice for anyone, really.

Finally, and this may be more practical than actual legal advice for those embarking on an office relationship: be certain.

Are the two of you merely bonding over an intense project requiring late night work or travel? Are you perhaps merely sharing frustration with your spouses or co-workers?

Or do you have a connection that extends beyond the office?

While a workplace romance can lead to a satisfying long-term relationship, they also can lead to awkward or even unpleasant workplace situations for the two people involved, as well as co-workers and managers.

l Wilford H. Stone is a lawyer with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.

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