Managing Workplace Romances
Ignoring them can spell legal and other trouble for your company
By Margaret M. Sheahan
The office romance has been a staple of Hollywood romantic comedies from Hepburn & Tracy in the 1930s to Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in the 2009 movie The Proposal. In real life, however, when the romance involves your own employees, it tends to be a lot less fun.
Probably the last role any supervisor wants to assume is “date cop.” The day-to-day burdens of running a business and the distastefulness of butting into other people’s business can make the temptation to ignore the whole matter almost irresistible. But ignoring the workplace romance is simply not a viable option for management.
Depending on the relative positions of the sweethearts, the impact can be serious. If one manages the other, the subordinate’s peers may feel slighted, disadvantaged, jealous and/or resentful. If they are organizational equals, their coworkers may feel the relationship is taking precedence over work or that team balance has been skewed. A relationship between an employee and a client or vendor representative can complicate or even jeopardize business objectives and projects. Moreover, some of these practicalities are linked to significant employment law exposure for employers.
The most obvious legal issues involve sexual harassment. Is what appears to be friendly interaction really unwelcome speech or behavior of a sexual nature occurring in the context of an employment relationship? Is one of the participants in a position to make or influence employment decisions about the other so that quid pro quo harassment might be occurring? Are the romantic overtures of a peer, subordinate, or outside business contact creating a hostile or offensive environment for your employee?
What to Do
These questions cannot always be answered solely from observation. As uncomfortable as the prospect may be, you should address the questions separately and privately with each of the employees involved and document the results.
Explain to each member of the couple that the apparent development of a special relationship has come to your attention, and while you have no desire to pry, the organization’s obligation to maintain a harassment-free workplace requires inquiry.
Ask each if any conduct is unwelcome or if any suggestion has been made that employment decisions will be affected by one individual’s reaction to the other’s speech or conduct. If the answers indicate a problem, further investigation and any necessary, appropriate corrective action and protection from retaliation should immediately follow.
If the answers indicate that both parties welcome the other’s attentions, then you will need to guard against the possibility that this might change someday. The best way to do that is to have each employee sign and date a statement admitting that on inquiry, the employee has assured the employer there is no unwelcome speech or conduct and that the employee is aware of your company’s anti-harassment policy and his or her obligation to report any future unwelcome conduct or speech to management.
You must also find out if the couple’s relationship is having a negative effect on their coworkers. Do any coworkers feel that their failure to enter into a relationship with either of the participants disadvantaged them vis- -vis the coworker who did enter the relationship? Are they exposed to speech or conduct between the happy couple that is unwelcome to them? Are they hampered in communications necessary to their job performance?
Know Your Legal Obligations
Employers’ reactions to workplace romances often raise questions as well. For example, is employee privacy sufficiently honored when inquiries are made? Has the couple or coworkers communicating about them misused communication devices issued by the employer? Does the relationship require some response under an anti-nepotism policy? Is monitoring or investigating the possibility of such a relationship conducted within the bounds of lawful employee surveillance? Are solutions to untenable workplace relationships violating state and/or federal bans on marital status, sexual orientation, or gender discrimination?
In all these areas, it’s critical that you carefully consider your compliance obligations before deciding on a course of action.
Although the prospect of watching out for how an employee romance is affecting the participants, their coworkers, and your business may look like an avoidable annoyance, the potential consequences of not managing it are too serious to be ignored.
Margaret Sheahan is a partner in the law firm of Mitchell & Sheahan, P.C. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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