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When romance goes bad: Protecting the company from the fallout

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on a person’s sex. When office romances sour, scorned lovers often use this law to allege that their former lover was a sexual harasser. And even if the lovers are happy, workplace romances can cause problems in the office or on the shop floor. If co-workers feel a love affair results in favoritism, the relationship may lead to charges of conflict of interest, harassment, retaliation or discrimination.

A landmark 1998 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton) said that employers are responsible for the actions of their supervisors. It said employers—to be able to put forth a defense in harassment cases—must establish sexual harassment policies and complaint procedures. There must be provisions allowing harassed employees to bypass their immediate supervisors when reporting harassment.

A 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders) says harassed employees can quit before filing charges internally if they believe working conditions are too difficult to continue. The legal term for such a situation is “constructive discharge.” The Suders case illustrates that an employer must be alert to sexual harassment complaints and investigate, even if the alleged victim quits.

What's new  

With most people spending more than a third of the day at work, and workers being more connected than ever before thanks to e-mail, the Internet and cell phones, workplace romance is hotter than ever. Roughly four out of 10 workers have dated a co-worker, according to a survey by Spherion Corporation. Acceptance of workplace romance is growing and is greater among younger employees, with nearly half of workers ages 30–39 reporting workplace trysts.

Still, employees see the potential problems: 47% of women and 36% of men think openly dating a co-worker could jeopardize their careers. And most people surveyed agreed that dating between supervisors and subordinates is taboo, even though nearly 20% of employees in a Vault.com survey admitted to having dated a supervisor.

While workplace romance policies are growing increasingly common, only about 30% of companies currently have them.

How to comply  

Based on all these legal risks, should your organization forbid office romances? Legally, you can, but it probably isn’t the wisest move. A “no romance” policy could be nearly impossible to enforce and would affect employees who already are involved in relationships with co-workers. It also might be taken as an affront to employees’ privacy. It could damage morale.

Instead, employers must look at the larger picture. Charges of favoritism, discrimination and conflict of interest are the real culprits here. When employees supervise or evaluate “significant others,” they lack (or are perceived to lack) sufficient objectivity to perform their jobs fairly. As a result, other employees may feel they’re being discriminated against.

While this scenario may be troublesome, it’s not necessarily illegal. Unless discrimination actually is occurring and is due to the victim’s membership in a protected class, it most likely violates no law.

Note: Employees can exercise control over co-workers without directly supervising them. In one recent case, a loan officer at a car dealership had a relationship with a salesman. Other employees complained that the officer gave the best sales leads to her lover. The pair were disciplined and later fired, and the dealership wound up sorting it out in a courtroom.

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