Kris Dunn at the HR Capitalist has a post on The "Love Broker" – Making Your Employees Sign A Workplace Relationship Prenup… Are such contracts really necessary and do they offer any legal protection?
While taboos on workplace romance may have eased, legal and morale problems persist. Office surveys show that 40% of workers admitted they have dated a co-worker. However, the same survey states that 84% of businesses do not have policies on workplace romance. David Javitch notes in his post on Dealing with an Office Romance, that there may be even bigger workplace risks for morale problems created by perceived favoritism and the looming sexual harassment claim. Courts can hold an employer liable for the sexual favoritism created by a supervisor’s romantic involvement with a subordinate. Sexual harassment claims remain high with the EEOC reporting over 12,500 claims filed in 2007 resulting in EEOC settlements totaling almost $50 million. Million Dollar verdicts are common.
“Love Contracts” are usually called Consensual Relationship Agreements by the lawyers who draft them. Agreements are typically used when a supervisor is dating a subordinate but can also apply to co-workers. The agreements attempt to provide the employer with a defense to a a sexual harassment claim by documenting that the relationship is consensual (not unwelcome). Employees view them as intrusive and HR managers loath monitoring the workplace rumor mill to determine if a contract is necessary.
Love Contracts have limited utility absent a broader policy and training approach. Employers should consider the following in addressing workplace romances:
Implement a Strong Policy against Sexual and other Harassment
The EEOC has issued extensive guidance on sexual harassment policies and their ability to reduce an employer’s liability for harassment. One of the most critical components of such a policy is an effective complaint procedure to redress claims of harassment. The risk of sexual harassment claims skyrockets when supervisors fish off the company dock. Sexual harassment by a supervisor means automatic liability for a company, if it culminates in a tangible employment action like termination or discipline.
Develop a Policy on Office Romance without calling it "Fraternization"
The D.C. Court of Appeals in Guardsmark v. NLRB overruled an employer’s no fraternization rule because it violated the rights of employees to engage in concerted activities. The court examined an employer’s policy that stated employees must not “fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with client’s employees or with co-employees.” The court ruled that the generic term “fraternize” was overly broad because employees might infer that it prohibited both romantic relationships (which the employer could reasonably regulate) and fraternal relationships involving the discussion of terms and conditions of employment (that are protected by section 7).
Supervisory training on sexual harassment can demonstrate a company’s good faith attempts to comply with the law. Such training should explain the types of conduct that violate the employer’s anti-harassment policy; the seriousness of the policy; the responsibilities of supervisors and managers when they learn of alleged harassment; and the prohibition against retaliation.
Proactively Evaluate and Confront Situations
Most employers are content to sit passively and watch an office romance unfold. Many will not act unless it "becomes a disruption". Consider some proactive steps. If the romance is between co-workers, make sure they understand that it cannot affect productivity. If it is between a supervisor and subordinate, evaluate whether there should be changes in the reporting structure. Do not automatically transfer or reassign the female in the relationship or you will risk a discrimination claim.