Do “Love Contracts” Protect Employers from Office Romance Issues?
Valentine’s Day is coming soon, when many of us turn our personal thoughts to romance. What about work relationships? Let’s face it. Whether the company culture frowns on personal relationships in the workplace or looks the other way, they do happen. Strong bonds develop when employees work long hours together on projects where there are shared interests. Couple that with today’s technology that keeps us all connected 24 hours a day, seven days per week, and you have the ingredients for office romance.
So aside from the fact that office relationships can develop, how should you handle them? Look the other way in hopes that either the relationship will be short-lived and others won’t notice or that one of the employees in the relationship will leave the company and/or department? Or wait until the relationship turns sour and you are faced with a sexual harassment complaint or other employee relations issues as employees “take sides” or claim “unfair advantage”? And what about employees losing focus on work projects as they deal with the relationship issues that have spilled over from their personal lives into their work lives?
We recommend that employers consider the following practical tips in managing office romances:
- Recognize the fact that office romances can blossom in your organization, and alert your employees to your expectations for managing their personal issues outside of work.
- Review your company policies regarding office relationships. Most companies have written policies that discourage or prohibit managers from dating subordinates embedded in their sexual harassment or ethics/conflict of interest policies, but most are silent on issues of co-workers dating. Consider your company culture and the likelihood that you might be faced with an office romance that could lead to consequences where the employer loses the most at the end. If you determine that the risks of this happening are low, then we recommend that you ensure, at a minimum, that you have a policy in place discouraging supervisor-subordinate relationships. It can help to have it “on record” that you do not encourage romantic office relationships.
- While this might not protect you from liability in the event of a relationship ending badly where one of your employees claims that the end of the relationship includes on-the-job harassment or retaliation, some employment lawyers recommend creating a “relationship contract” or “love contract” between the two parties in an office romance (download our sample, here). While a contract like this is probably not binding in the true legal sense of offering the employer protection from harassment or retaliation claims in the workplace, it may provide the following advantages:
- It documents the fact that the two employees are agreeing that their romantic relationship has been entered into freely and without coercion.
- It reinforces the company position that the company has not approved or encouraged the office romance.
- It can also reinforce both employees’ awareness of the company policies regarding conduct in the workplace, sexual harassment, and conflicts of interest.
The bottom line is that you know your employees and the type of company culture you want to nurture. Carefully think through how you would want your employees and managers to handle the types of issues that arise with office romances in advance of the actual situation so that you are prepared and ready. Carefully crafted policies, “love contracts,” management training, and thorough employee communications are all tools that can help you show the love to your employees and customers in all the right ways.