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Love Contracts Can Head Off Suits

Signing a document can clarify any assumptions about exclusivity, a shared future or whether consorting with a superior will affect a person's career.

January 30, 2004

Employment lawyers are increasingly pushing their clients to adopt "volitional relationship contracts," or "love contracts," as a means of heading off potential sexual-harassment suits.

    A contract typically specifies that a relationship is voluntary, promising that its constituents will behave professionally during and after the relationship, and that the parties will inform management if the relationship ends. If the subordinate fails to inform human resources that advances are no longer welcome and eventually files a lawsuit, "you have a whole lot better position before a jury," says Karen Sutherland, chair of the employment and labor law practice group at Ogden Murphy Wallace in Seattle.

    While some workplace couples complain that codifying their mutual understanding kills romance, Sutherland defends the forms as useful for both the company and the couple." Otherwise decent and upstanding people sometimes behave very badly when they fall in love," Sutherland says. "They develop huge blind spots." She notes that signing a document may help to clarify any assumptions about exclusivity, a shared future or whether consorting with a superior will affect a person’s pay and career trajectory. Monica Ballard, president of Parallax Education, a law firm in Santa Monica, California, that specializes in training to prevent sexual harassment, believes that love contracts don’t have to be unfurled for every workplace romance, but are desirable for relationships that have a high potential for litigious volatility. Such affairs tend to involve the very people that human resources is most loath to offend: officers of the company and senior executives, who all too often are already married.

    Too many guys at the top lack a sense of fair play and perspective that takes into account the feelings of others, spurring women who think that they have been treated callously to take legal action, Ballard says. "You have an executive who is toying with a person, and she’s thinking he’s going to marry her or date her or buy her things. Many times, he dumps her without much communication and she is furious." People who feel that they’ve been lied to are "more likely to come to the conclusion that they’ve been harassed," Sutherland adds. Top dogs usually pick up their pens to sign once the stakes have been explained, but subordinates often need persuasion.

    Sutherland counsels companies to help and support the more vulnerable employees. "Say to them, ‘If you’re in a relationship and it goes sour, we’re here to help you. If the relationship ends and is not consensual anymore, tell me.’" There are times, Ballard says, when the superior consorting with the underling is ordered to get his inamorata to sign the agreement. "The guy is the one we’re really protecting," Ballard says. "He has to go in and convince her," using the argument that signing is in her own best interest. But it’s not. "You know that and I know that."

    Not everyone, however, agrees that using one member of the couple to get the consent of the other is a good idea. Such tactics make ArLyne Diamond, a management consultant in Santa Clara, California, wince. "That’s totally bullying behavior! That’s harassment right there!" Companies that have a set of core values that consist of treating the most vulnerable employees as fairly as the firm’s most powerful are the least likely to run into legal problems, Diamond says.

Workforce Management, February 2004, p. 40 -- Subscribe Now!