It’s February, and love is in the air for Valentine’s Day! Some employees will be receiving flowers and gifts and talking about where they are going for dinner that night. But is your office prepared when dating involves co-workers?
It is difficult for employers to completely prevent employees from engaging in consensual romantic relationships but understanding the risks and how to handle these situations can help minimize concerns. Employers should focus on mitigating risks of decreased productivity, potential claims of harassment or discrimination, favoritism, conflicts of interest, breaches of ethics and (potential) workplace violence. The first and easiest way a company can help protect themselves is with an employee handbook complete with an updated non-harassment policy that includes anti-retaliation provisions and investigation procedures. If it becomes known that two employees are dating, Human Resources should meet with the employees and remind them that all employees are responsible for conducting themselves professionally and respectfully in the workplace, whether they are dating or not. The second is the use of a contract regarding consensual relationships in the workplace, often referred to as a “love contract.”
Love contracts are becoming more common in workplaces. A love contract encourages co-workers that are romantically involved to disclose their relationship to Human Resources. A love contract is a tool that allows employees to be honest about workplace relationships, so those relationships can be managed. Love contracts put employees in romantic relationships “on notice” by highlighting certain expectations. These documents typically include a statement ensuring that the employees have entered a consensual, voluntary relationship, that they have re-reviewed the Company’s non-harassment and other applicable policies and acknowledge the consequences of failure to follow those policies. It is also important to explain the Company’s anti-retaliation provisions in the event there is a report of harassment. Including language regarding certain expectations, such as avoiding public displays of affection in the workplace may minimize disruptions as well. Further, the contract should explain what the employees should do if the relationship ever ceases to be consensual.
Employers will also want to strongly discourage romantic relationships between supervisors and those they manage to reduce the risk of claims of conflicts of interest, favoritism, abuse of power or sexual harassment. Employers should require supervisors who become romantically involved with an employee to disclose the relationship. Even if the supervisor does not directly manage the employee, other employees may feel as if the employee involved in the relationship receives preferential treatment, causing a decrease in employee morale and an increased risk of discrimination complaints and litigation. 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.
Attempting to forbid office romance altogether among co-workers can be counterproductive and futile. Further, New York has off-duty conduct laws which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who engage in lawful activities outside of work. If the employer is witnessing issues during working hours, such as harassment, discrimination or a hostile work environment, the situation should be documented to mitigate any potential claims of discrimination for lawful off-duty conduct, such as dating a co-worker. While love contracts can be a good idea for both employers and employees, employers cannot force or compel employees to sign such contracts; however, Human Resources can keep a pulse on the relationship to ensure that the two employees are truly in a consensual, voluntary situation and that there are no conflicts of interest to avoid dysfunction in the workplace. Comprehensive training related to discrimination and harassment can also help employers manage this issue.
HR Works Can Help
Clients that are active on the Virtual Helpline service may call and speak with an HR Compliance Specialist to discuss any situation regarding workplace romance. Employers should consider having their love contract drawn up by a labor and employment attorney familiar with their state’s sexual harassment laws and laws protecting employee privacy. The Virtual Helpline is also able to provide a sample love contract as well.