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Don’t let office romance poison workplace; third parties can sue

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Legal threats from interoffice romance typically come from harassment claims if the relationship sours. But here comes a new threat: employees who claim a "hostile environment" when favoritism caused by another couple's passion negatively affects their job.

This case gives you even more reason to play it safe when it comes to interoffice dating. Don't completely ban dating among co-workers; it's nearly impossible to enforce. Instead, follow these three tips:

1. Set an anti-fraternization policy that bans relationships between employees who hold a supervisor/subordinate relationship. Or, at the very least, require supervisors to notify you if they become involved in such a "power differentiated" relationship. This may precipitate moving the staffer to work under a different supervisor.

2. Set behavior guidelines. As a recent case shows, even public displays of affection could help produce a hostile environment. Your policy should require professional behavior at all times and discourage public displays of affection.

3. If an employee complains about an interoffice romance, don't shrug it off. Look into it, and tell the offending lovebirds that their behavior makes others uncomfortable. Remind them of your policy, and explain that if their relationship interferes with their work, one party may have to be transferred to another shift or department.

Recent case: Police trooper Mary Ritchie had to watch a romantic relationship bloom between her superior officer and his secretary. The "lovestruck" couple played "footsie," held hands and gave each other shoulder massages. Ritchie filed an internal complaint alleging sexual harassment and, soon after, her superior officer began giving her negative job reviews. Ritchie sued, claiming first that the romantic relationship between her supervisor and a co-worker created a sexually hostile work environment, and second that her supervisor retaliated against her after she complained.

While the court tossed out her sexual harassment claim, saying that this situation didn't rise to the level of a sexually hostile environment, the court didn't close the door to such claims. In fact, it left open the possibility that, in other circumstances, employees could successfully argue that a supervisor's sexual favoritism could create a hostile environment.

On the second point, the court said Ritchie's retaliation claim could proceed to trial. (Ritchie v. Dept. of State Police, No. 02-P-593, Mass. App. Ct., 2004)

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