Workplace romance gone bad? Don’t hesitate to terminate if you perceive danger

Not every romance ends happily ever after with a storybook wedding. But with the passage of time, most breakups don’t leave a lingering mess. That’s not necessarily true of workplace romances gone sour, where the former love birds may remain in regular contact with each other.

It’s especially difficult if one of the workers continues to pursue his beloved. That can quickly become a case of sexual harassment.

When that happens, don’t hesitate to fire the guilty party, especially if he shows signs of instability, irrationality or other disturbing behavior that makes you fear for workplace safety.

Recent case: Joseph and his co-worker Alicia had a romantic relationship for two months over the summer. The two broke up, but by Christmas, they were communicating again. Although they were no longer involved in a relationship, Joseph let Alicia stay at his house after she became too intoxicated to drive home after a happy hour event.

That didn’t change Alicia’s feelings, but by spring, Joseph began showing up uninvited at Alicia’s house. He sent her a series of text messages begging her to rekindle the romance.

MGR Handbook D

She responded that she didn’t want to and that he was “freaking” her out.

At one point, Alicia had to enlist the help of a neighbor to make Joseph leave her yard. Undaunted, Joseph kept texting and emailing through the night and the next day.

Alicia complained to her supervisor, who reported the problem to HR. It conducted an investigation and interviewed those involved, including Joseph. The HR representative explained that his behavior was inappropriate and told him to leave Alicia alone. During the interview, Joseph cried and declared that his attentions were neither unwelcome nor harassment. But he also indicated he couldn’t help himself and announced he would at least continue to walk past Alicia’s desk. The company concluded that Joseph had violated its harassment policy by refusing to leave Alicia alone.

It fired him and he sued, alleging he was the victim of harassment. He claimed Alicia had twice berated him at work.

The case was dismissed. The court said the employer was free to terminate someone who refused to follow direct orders to leave a co-worker alone. It didn’t matter that the objectionable behavior leading to the investigation took place outside the workplace. (Lucchesi v. Day & Zimmerman, No. 10-4164, ED PA, 2012)

Should you ban workplace romances altogether?

You could try to prohibit interoffice romance—but good luck enforcing such a ban. The better approach is a modified policy that prohibits romantic relationships between subordinates and supervisors anywhere in the chain of command.

Those are the relationships most susceptible to claims of sexual harassment later. That’s especially true if the subordinate felt pressured into the relationship because of the relative power of the supervisor over the subordinate.

As far as co-worker relationships go, be clear in your sexual harassment policies that although you don’t ban such relationships, you expect employees to handle any breakups with maturity.

If that doesn’t happen, take action. Don’t let the situation escalate into something worse, like an incident of workplace violence.