It’s Valentine’s Day and love is in the air! Many people meet their significant other in the workplace. However, according to Pat Benatar in her famous rock song, Love is a Battlefield. So exactly how can employers avoid getting caught in the battlefield of cupid’s crossfire?
Not surprisingly, surveys repeatedly show office romance runs rampant in the workplace. In fact, SHRM estimates half of all employees admit to having been involved in a relationship with a co-worker or manager. Based on that, we can concede that office romance may be unavoidable. What are viable options available to employers?
Traditionally, it was common for employers to promulgate broad-based anti-fraternization policies. The idea behind these policies is sound—failed relationships can easily lead to sexual harassment complaints. These anti-fraternization policies typically forbid relationships among members of the workforce.
Such broad-based anti-fraternization policies are difficult to enforce. Even worse, in my experience, I have seen that most employers rarely choose to enforce them. Thus, anti-fraternization policies usually are not the best choice. Instead, employers may want to implement anti-fraternization policies that prohibit relationships between employees and members of management, or relationships that lead to potential conflicts of interest. Such policies should not seek to punish offenders but seek to first remove the conflict through potential reassignment or transfer, if available. The policy should also encourage open communication.
The Love Contract
The Love Contract is fairly new to the employment realm. Gaining in popularity, love contracts usually require employees to agree to certain terms, including that their relationship is consensual; the pair will not engage in favoritism; and they will not bring unfounded claims of sexual harassment if their relationship ends. The policy must include the employer’s written sexual harassment policy. The policy should also discourage public displays of affection and list other inappropriate behaviors. Last, to avoid surprises, employment manuals should require employees to disclose relationships and advise that they may be asked to enter into a contract. This alerts employees as to the policy’s existence and their duty to report relationships.
Even better than anti-fraternization policies and love contracts is an employer that cultivates a culture of compliance, understanding, and mutual respect. To do this, employers should have sound, detailed, and easy to understand sexual harassment policies that are frequently reviewed and updated. Employers should also conduct regular training on their sexual harassment policies. And most importantly, employers should work hard at investigating complaints quickly, thoroughly, addressing all concerns. They should always be working towards eradicating harassment—and discrimination—from the work place.
If an employer is aware of an interoffice relationship, especially with a manager and subordinate, and their HR professionals do not have experience in this area, they should consult with an experienced employment law attorney to draft a love contract and meet with the employees. Attorneys can also assist employers with reducing the risk of sexual harassment claims in the workplace through policy drafting, training, investigations and, if needed, litigation.
About the Author: Alejandro Pérez is a partner at Jaburg Wilk. Fully bilingual, Alejandro assists employers of all sizes with labor and employment law issues. In addition to representing clients in litigation, Alejandro provides advice and counsel on HR decisions; conducts sensitive workplace investigations; drafts and reviews employment policies, handbooks, and agreements; and trains workforces on a variety of aspects of employment law.
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