Fishing off the Company Dock: A Legal Perspective
There is an interesting post by Kate Lorenz at careerbuilder.com asking the question "Is Workplace Romance Really Taboo?" Ms. Lorenz observes that "society no longer frowns upon romance that blooms between co-workers." The ups and downs of office romance are even recounted in articles on Monster.com.
There is evidence that the taboos are truly gone. According to a 2007 Vault Survey, sixteen percent of employees confess to getting caught canoodling at the office. Office romance is embraced by all three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial). In fact 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. News outlets publish "How to Strategies". The Workplace Fairness Blog has some provocative comments in a post called "Love and Marriage at Work (and a Little Sex Too)"
While taboos may have eased, legal problems persist. David Javitch notes in his post on "Dealing with an Office Romance", there may be even bigger workplace risks for morale problems created by perceived favoritism and the looming sexual harassment claim. Courts have found employer’s liable for the sexual favoritism created by a supervisor’s romantic involvement with subordinates. Sexual harassment claims remain high with the EEOC reporting over 12,000 claims filed in 2006 resulting in EEOC settlements totaling almost $50 million. Million Dollar verdicts are common.
The risk of sexual harassment claims skyrockets when supervisors dip their pen in the company ink. Sexual harassment by a supervisor means automatic liability for a company, if it culminates in a tangible employment action like termination or discipline.
So what are the legal ins and outs of office romance and how can a business employ prophylactic measures to protect itself. Here is a list of things I can recommend:
Implement a Strong Policy Against Sexual and other Harassment
The EEOC has issued extensive guidance on sexual harassment policies and there 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.
Develop a Policy on Office Romance without calling it "Fraternization"
It doesn’t take a NASA scientist to realize organizations may need a policy addressing workplace romance (or maybe it does). According to Office Politics, thirty-five percent of companies have no formal workplace romance policy. Develop a policy, but avoid overly broad definitions and in particular the word "fraternize’ which was the court’s primary objection in the in Guardsmark case.
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 "As the World Turns". 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 impact productivity. If it is between a supervisor and subordinate, evaluate whether there should be changes in the reporting structure. Don’t automatically transfer or reassign the female in the relationship or you will risk a discrimination claim. Susan Heathfield has some good practical pointers in her post "Tips About dating, Sex and Romance at Work".