With employees returning to the physical office, employers are likely going to have to deal with a number of headaches they haven’t had to address during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these headaches relates to office romance. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, a January 2022 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management shows that one-third of workers said they were, or have been, involved in a relationship with a coworker. That number is up from about one-quarter in 2020.
Potential Pitfalls of Office Romance
Although romantic relationships among coworkers are now fairly common, they can cause problems. Office romance can lead to claims of sexual harassment — both quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment. Claims for quid pro quo harassment often arise after a consensual relationship ends and one of the individuals continues to demand sex. Likewise, if one party is upset with the relationship ending, that person may engage in inappropriate conduct that creates a hostile workplace.
Employees outside the relationship may also be affected. We often see other employees make claims of favoritism when a supervisor is in a relationship with a subordinate employee.
Policies Are Key
Although sexual harassment and similar equal employment opportunity (EEO) policies are common in the workplace, many employers have not implemented specific policies that cover romance in the workplace. The policy should be molded to fit the specific needs of the employer. Generally speaking, every policy should prohibit a supervisor and a subordinate from being in a romantic relationship. Some employers may want to further restrict any romantic relationships in the workplace.
The policy should require that romantic relationships be reported to Human Resources (HR), and the policy should make clear that any sort of favoritism is prohibited. The policy should also remind employees of the separate sexual harassment policy. Any sort of behavior akin to harassment should be strictly prohibited, and employees should be directed to report such conduct to HR.
As with any policy, the romance-in-the-workplace policy needs to apply to all employees, and written copies need to be disseminated to all employees. Receipt of the policy should be acknowledged in writing by the employees.
It might sound funny, but one way an employer can mitigate risks is to use a “love contract” when coworkers are in a relationship. It is a signed agreement where both employees acknowledge that the relationship is consensual and does not constitute a form of sexual harassment. The agreement usually sets out expectations in terms of how the employees will behave toward each other in the workplace. It should also provide a procedure for reporting any problems that arise.
Love contracts, of course, are not foolproof. Discussing and drafting a love contract might be awkward, but that’s to be expected when office romance is in the air.
Don’t Forget Sexual Harassment and Other EEO Training
With employees working away from the office, it has been harder for employers to conduct regular training sessions. Plus, with so much of HR’s time being consumed by the pandemic response, there has surely been a decrease in the amount of EEO training in the workplace. Now is the time for employers to rectify that issue.
Employers should be conducting annual EEO training, and the topic of sexual harassment should be part of that training. Regular training actually can serve as a defense to a sexual harassment claim in many states. When you conduct the training, make sure you have the employees sign an acknowledgment that confirms attendance.