Love is in the Air? Practical Tips for Dealing with Workplace Relationships
Like many holidays, Valentine’s Day is a time when employees celebrate, while HR representatives, in-house counsel, and business owners hold their breath. In the #MeToo era, employers should consider proactively addressing workplace relationships and shoring up internal policies for dealing with complaints. Here are some tools to help employers get in the Valentine’s Day spirit.
Addressing Budding Romances
What could be more romantic than giving a beau a “love contract” for Valentine’s Day? Even in the age of online dating, many Americans still meet their spouses at work and many more try. (Surprisingly, HR professionals are among the most likely to date a colleague.) Although success stories may be romantic, many employers are rightfully concerned about the legal risks and management issues that can arise from these relationships.
Employers may be wise to refresh or draft an inter-office relationship policy. The best policies identify the situations that pose the highest risk of sexual harassment or hostile work environment claims, while recognizing the practical limitations of barring all romantic relationships in the workplace. For example, employers may choose to allow employees with the same job title or in different departments to have a dating relationship, but bar any romantic relationship between employees and their supervisors. Or, employees may be instructed to disclose the relationship if the parties to the relationship are in the same reporting chain and acknowledge that one or the other of the parties may need to be transferred as a result. If an employer does allow supervisors to engage in a workplace romance with subordinates, consider ending the reporting relationship to avoid allegations of favoritism.
Employers may also consider requiring employees in a romantic relationship to sign an acknowledgement affirming that the relationship is consensual and neither party is experiencing sexual harassment. Of course, those acknowledgements will not protect employers from harassment perceived by one of the parties to the relationship after the document is signed, but it could be helpful to show good intentions at the beginning. Despite the headaches of documenting all workplace romances, it can be worth the effort if situations arise down the line.
Take Unwanted Attention Seriously
Not everyone is excited to get gifts on Valentine’s Day. Here are some examples of employees who were misguided by Cupid’s arrow:
The coworker who placed this personal ad in the newspaper: “Dear Sgt., Spring is right around the corner, just like me. Look outside, see your Robin by the tree. Love, Azalea.” Schlichter v. Limerick Twp., CIV A. 04-CV-4229, 2006 WL 2381970, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 14, 2006).
The coworker who sent this Valentine’s card: “I can’t imagine loving you more than I do today … but tomorrow I will. HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY, SWEETHEART.” Johnson v. West, 218 F.3d 725, 728 (7th Cir. 2000).
The coworker whose gift of candy for Valentine’s Day was unappetizing. After giving his coworker candy, he told her “he wanted to give her a hug, but did not want to get in trouble.” Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Indus., Inc., 2:11CV347, 2011 WL 4478864, at *2 (E.D. Va. Sept. 26, 2011).
Employers should take complaints about this type of unwanted attention seriously. Although one unwanted card or bouquet of flowers may not be enough to establish a sexual harassment claim on its own, it may be one piece of evidence used to establish a pattern of harassment that gives rise to claim.
In addition to being reactive, employers should be proactive in preventing sexual harassment. Given the recent media attention to sexual harassment and workplace relationships, there has never been a better time to revise applicable policies and complete sexual harassment training for employees, executives and board members. See our previous post on tips for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
Happy Valentine’s Day!