Protect Yourself if You Are in an Office Romance with a Co-Worker

downloadAccording to CareerBuilder’s annual office romance survey, 38 percent of respondents have dated a co-worker at least once in their career, and one-third of them ended up married.  In this time of Valentine’s Day gifts and sweet nothings being whispered about in the office, one must be apprised of the risks and listen to their head rather than their heart.  If the relationship sours, then hell may in fact have no fury like a woman’s scorn.  The employer may not be in a position to adjudicate the conflict between lovers and may manage their risk by terminating either or both employees in an at will state such as Tennessee.

The employer assumes risk in failing to forbid interoffice romance if they do not have proper policies around exactly what is allowed-or risk being surprised by what workers may think is acceptable.  An employer may be in a position to have to investigate your relationship if you or the other reports an ill perceived sweet nothing or act as sexual harassment.  The employer will be advised to hedge their risk by terminating you or reassigning you to another job.  This may mean relocation from your present residence.  The risk for you manifests itself even more so if you are a supervisor in a relationship or trifle with a subordinate.  The law places a legal burden on the employer in that it was on actual notice of the harassment and ripens a plausible sexual harassment claim into cause of action.

Employees may assert disparate treatment upon them if they perceive favoritism.  Other subordinates may feel resentful about the fairness of evaluations and rewards. This can have an adverse impact on employee moral, performance, and productivity. If you are in relationship with a co-worker or an employee you manage, you should consider reassignment or take affirmative action to avoid a claim.  If a relationship ends amicably, the other person may allege harassment if that person gets fired or passed over for a promotion.  The subordinate may allege that he or she was coerced in the relationship in the first place.  Alternatively, you may find yourself treating the subordinate worse to avoid other perceiving favoritism.

Some may argue that management should stay out of the affairs of the heart.  You may be asked to sign a “love contract” where you and your partner sign a statement saying the relationship is consensual.  This avoids a potential accusation of coercion against you and it adds a measure of protection against that risk.  If you are asking yourself how to make an advance towards another employee you are attracted to, it may be best if that you form a positive working relationship first to avoid misperceptions of what may be deemed as fraternization.

Naturally, applying common sense can avoid an adverse employment action arising out of a potential complaint.  Avoid partaking in include romantic or sexually explicit conversations, open displays of affection, such as hugging, kissing, touching, blowing kisses and winking, and romantic rendezvous on office property.  The more challenging task will be to evaluate the relationship and/or conflict detached from emotions natural to any such relationship.  This can be a slippery slope for supervisors who are far more comfortable with cut and dried topics like production numbers and scheduling.  If you have a close confidant you work with, speak to them as they are neutral and detached from the emotions swirling in your mind.  Get their advice and assistance if necessary on how to be proactive in avoiding a conflict or contend with one that exists.

If you are being harassed in the workplace by a former romantic partner, it is imperative that you disclose that in your complaint to human resources, management, and/or the EEOC.  Communicate to the former partner that you are no longer interested in them romantically and that such advances are sexual harassment and violates company policy and federal law.  Do not be intimidated by the potential of others asserting that you consented to the harassment.  The law protects you in that once you communicate opposition to conduct you deem harassing and hostile.  There is no affirmative defense by the employer or former partner that consent in the past is consent in the present.  Communicate your opposition in writing to the former partner and management so that you can establish actual notice which will be proof in a subsequent cause of action you may file.

About Roland

Roland was born in Nashville, Tennessee and raised in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. The first few years he resided in Paris, France with his mother who was French. In Hendersonville, he attended Beech Senior High School where played soccer and studied in the honors curriculum. Subsequently, he pursued two majors in political science and economics while graduating in three years.

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