I listened with great interest to the latest episode of the Hostile Work Environment podcast, which featured as its guest my good friend Dan Schwartz talking about the pitfalls of Valentine’s Day at work.
Dan cited CareerBuilder’s annual V-Day survey, which offers some interesting stats about the current state of office romances:
- 22 percent of workers have dated their boss (up 7 percent from last year).
- 31 percent of workers who started dating at work ultimately married each other.
- Almost 1 in 10 female workers whose work romance soured left their job.
- 41 percent of workers had to keep their romance a secret.
Yet, love and work do not always go well together, especially on Valentine’s Day.
Consider Russo v. APL Marine Services, which involved a failed romantic relationship between the plaintiff-employee and the captain of the boat on which she worked. Their relationship included a Valentine’s Day tryst, and after it ended, she alleged harassing behavior such as butt slaps and requests for “make-up sex.” (Full disclosure — the employer ultimately won this case, but not until after four years of litigation, including a jury trial and an appeal, and likely hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.)
What else can go wrong with office romances? As it turns out, a lot.
Here are 10 reasons co-workers shouldn’t date each other:
- Conflicts of interest.
- Extortion and blackmail attempts.
- Uncomfortable conversations with HR and company attorneys explaining your love life.
- Have to describing your employee’s private affairs in a deposition or, worse, to a jury.
- Office gossip.
- Love contracts.
- The loss of respect from co-workers and management.
- Facing termination for not disclosing a romance.
- Harassment and retaliation lawsuits when someone other than an employee’s paramour gets passed over for a promotion, fired, or otherwise thinks you are playing favorites.
- Harassment or retaliation lawsuits by a jilted partner when the relationship goes south.
Despite this list of potential horribles, there is nothing inherently illegal about romantic relationships between employees.
Nevertheless, especially in today’s #MeToo and #TimesUp environment, employers need to understand that permitting office romances amplifies the legal risk of claims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
- Ban them outright?
- Ban them only between a manager/supervisor and his/her subordinate?
- Permit them with a signed agreement (the “love contract”)?
- Do nothing and permit them across-the-board?
Which one these options you choose depends on your level of risk tolerance for office romances. If you permit intra-office romances, it is best that to do so with eyes wide open, in tune to the various issues that can arise if a romance goes bad.