As human resource professionals know, when employees get involved in romantic relationships it can be an employment law nightmare. It’s likely that the employees won’t think much about their decision at first. Should their relationship deteriorate, however, it’s often the employer that then faces a claim of sexual harassment or gender discrimination.
Suppose, for example, that one of your employees begins dating her supervisor, and the relationship doesn’t work out. If the subordinate employee claims sexual harassment, it will be easier for her to make her claim if you, the employer, permitted her to date her supervisor. Alternatively, if the relationship goes well and the subordinate employee is treated better than others, then one of her male co-workers may decide to file a gender discrimination claim. So again, if the employer permitted the personal relationship, it becomes more likely that it will be held liable.
This risk isn’t limited to relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Even relationships between peers or co-workers can support a claim of sexual harassment or gender discrimination. This is particularly true where the relationship results in somewhat inappropriate behavior in the workplace. If the behaviors contribute to a so-called hostile work environment, the employer is more likely to be held responsible if it was aware of the relationship and permitted it to continue.
To avoid this risk, it’s prudent for employers to have policies in place that prohibit or at least discourage employees from dating each other. Most importantly, supervisors should know that they may not date or have romantic relationships with their subordinates. Another helpful component of this sort of policy is to require employees to inform their employer should they decide to date a co-worker.
By proactively implementing common-sense policies, it’s far easier to successfully defend potential discrimination/harassment claims. In fact, having policies in place often significantly decreases or even eliminates the risk. For example, an employer that learns of a romantic relationship between co-workers may transfer one of them to another location. Other employers may choose to ask both employees to sign an agreement, sometimes called a love contract, that requires both employees to confirm that the relationship is consensual and not discriminatory or harassing.
Whatever approach you choose to take, the attorneys at The Coppola Firm stand ready to assist you.