Romance in the Workplace: Happy Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2008

I consulted the on line Encarta Encyclopedia for the origins of Valentine’s Day and found the following description:

The holiday probably derives from the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalis (February 15), also called the Lupercalia. In an annual rite of fertility, eligible young men and women would be paired as couples through a town lottery. Briefly clad or naked men would then run through the town carrying the skins of newly sacrificed goats dipped in blood. The women of the town would present themselves to be gently slapped by the strips and marked by the blood to improve their chances of conceiving in the coming year.

In one sense, the holiday’s evolution to cards and candy has been well received, at least by the goat population. I don’t think Lupercalis is celebrated at the EEOC. Nonetheless, workplace romance gone bad accounts for a significant number of sexual harassment claims as noted on my prior post Fishing off the Company Dock: A Legal Perspective. Similar advice and anecdotal observations appear at the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog’s post on When office romances go bad and the Washington Labor, Employment & Employee Benefits Law Blog’s post on Romance in the Workplace & “Love Contracts”.

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.

Train Supervisors

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.