4 Tips to Avoid Heartbreak (& Harassment Lawsuits) in Office Romances
With Valentine’s Day nearing, it’s an important time to look at how office romances are handled in your office.
Romances in the office come with many risks and complications, especially if/when they end. Employers must be careful to not allow, or be a party to sexual harassment, violate employee privacy, or create a hostile environment. Here are a few things employers can do to address office romances:
- Employers should educate their employees on the issues with office romances
Employees need to understand the risks and complications with office relationships. Employers should explain that office relationships, especially when they end, can put the employees and the employer in a difficult situation. Most importantly, if an employee believes they are being pressured into unwelcomed sexual activity by a coworker, they should report the sexual harassment to the employer. Employers should establish (and communicate) processes for employee complaints that protect the person speaking up against a coworker and provides a speedy resolution. The longer a situation is allowed to continue, the more likely an employee will look elsewhere (potentially toward litigation). Early & complete intervention can help mediate the situation.
- Consider creating “Love Contracts” for your employees
If you want to allow interoffice romances, consider having the employees enter a love contract. These contracts outline the employer’s sexual harassment policies and can help ensure that the relationship is consensual. Additionally, they can define what behavior is improper in the workplace. Finally, these contracts can help with potential retaliation issues between the coworkers and with the employer if the relationship ends poorly.
- Consider preventing office relationships
Many employers decide that office romances are too disruptive to the office. Employers can choose to ban office relationships entirely. Depending on the employer, it may be wise to extend this to contractors, customers, or vendors as well. This approach is particularly helpful if you have a lean staff, the inability to move staff to other departments, or are not properly equipped with an HR department to handle complicated personnel issues.
- After office relationships end, take any potential claims very seriously
When a potential harassment claim comes up after an office relationship has ended, employers may be tempted to not take the matter seriously or to hope that it will resolve itself with time. Time is, in fact, the enemy of a harassment claim, as the more time that elapses, the more opportunity there is for hurt feelings, irreparable damages, and serious litigation. All harassment claims should be quickly and thoroughly investigated before any conclusions are made. Only then can appropriate action be taken to address the situation.
There is ultimately only so much you, as the employer, can do to prevent office romance situations. However, with clearly defined & communicated policies and procedures, as well as careful and swift attention to situations, you can minimize your risk of being involved in a harassment suit.