Just in Time for Valentine’s Day: When Employees Place Bets in the Workplace Dating Pool…

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.
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“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.”—Aristotle

“The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his chest.”—Rosanne Barr

Okay, so, in college I was good friends with this girl on the dorm floor above me. Her roommate dated my best friend, and we fell into that fun, easygoing friendship that seems to happen only in college or Quentin Tarantino movies. (Was there ever a truer friendship portrayed on screen than between that of Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction?) We hung out, teased each other about our respective romantic prospects, and even went so far as to take a couple classes together to have a friendly shoulder to lean on around finals time.

Raise your hand if you can see where this is going.

Yes, we ended up dating. And that was all well and good…for about two months. Then we realized that we had been better as friends than we were as a couple. I suppose separate spring break trips—her to Florida, me to Vegas—may also have had something to do with the break up, but I digress. Anyway, we decided to call the whole dating thing off. The problem was that the easygoing friendship was gone. In its place was a seething ball of resentment and animosity, brought to a steady boil as a result of living in close proximity to each other, having many friends in common, and being stuck with a class seating chart that had us next to each other. Needless to say, the rest of the semester—not to mention our group presentation in our shared class—was somewhat awkward.

I know, I know…it was college, emotions run high, what happened in Vegas should have stayed in Vegas, yadda, yadda, yadda. But gone are the days where such drama is left behind in our dorm rooms following graduation—it is seeping more and more into our professional lives, as well. A recent survey from Vault.com showed that 59 percent of employees admitted to having engaged in a workplace romance, both in the form of a fling (23 percent of men, 15 percent of women) and a long-term, serious relationship (14.7 percent of men, 22.2 percent of women). The survey also suggested that nearly a third of all employees engaged in an actual “romantic encounter” (this is a family blog, folks) while at the office, with 4 percent being caught in the act. The most interesting stat to me, at least from a human resources (HR) standpoint, is that of those who have once had a workplace romance, 63 percent of those surveyed would do so again.

At the same time, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that in the 2011 fiscal year, 11,364 charges of discrimination were filed alleging sex harassment. Granted, this was the lowest number since 1997, but still represents a significant percentage of the overall number of charges filed in this country. Since every charge filed costs the company in terms of time (and, more often than not, money), anything the company can do to limit the likelihood of a harassment claim should be considered, if not implemented.

So what are the biggest problems facing companies when it comes to dealing with workplace romance?

  • Pretending it doesn’t happen. As the survey above shows, it does and it always will.  Ignoring the reality of workplace romance is dangerous, both legally and morale-wise.
  • Thinking nothing can go wrong. Think about the worst breakup that you have ever experienced. Now think about seeing that person every day, eight-plus hours a day, five or more days a week—for the rest of your career. Still think nothing can go wrong?
  • Not setting boundaries. A solid fraternization policy is essential. Usually located in the “Anti-Harassment” section of the handbook, a good fraternization policy will define what kinds of relationships are acceptable (between peers), which ones are not (between those of different levels), and which ones are grounds for discipline (between those in a reporting relationship).
  • Ignoring the boundaries that are set. A policy is only as good as the will of the company to enforce it.

So, the takeaway here is:

  • Accept that workplace romance happens, and is probably happening right now;
  • Be prepared for when some of those relationships end, and end ugly;
  • Give your company cover through a solid, comprehensive fraternization policy; and
  • Enforce the policy—even with those employees you really, really like.

Finally, a word about “love contracts.” You know, the document that HR requires the amorous couple sign once the company learns of the relationship? The document that spells out, in no uncertain terms, that the couple understands they are still subject to all company policies, and that whether the relationship lasts or not, the company expects the couple to behave legally and professionally? Or face discipline or termination?  Yes, that document.

Honestly, I hate the term “love contract.” It makes it sound like there is some kind of legally-binding agreement between HR (in its role as the love police, apparently) and the lovestruck employees. There isn’t—at all. There’s no consideration, there’s no give-and-take, and there is no legal way to enforce it.

But even though I hate the name, I really like the concept. It serves as a fantastic reminder to the happy couple, when used in conjunction with effective anti-harassment and fraternization policies, that the company (a) is aware of the relationship; (b) doesn’t care—so long as it stays outside of work; and (c) will not accept “but she/he broke up with me” as an excuse for doing stupid things in the workplace … or in Vegas, on a company trip.

Happy Valentine’s Day, all!

Matthew S. Effland is a shareholder in the Indianapolis office of Ogletree Deakins.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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