Obama or Clinton? Avoiding the Potential Disasters of Office Romance

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

An office romance 25 years ago worked out well for President Barack Obama (who met his wife, Michelle, while they were both working at a Chicago law firm) President Bill Clinton’s history of workplace relationships was a different story. When workplace relationships don’t work out, it isn’t only the unhappy couple that ends up suffering the consequences. Employers often must manage a welter of negative workplace effects from employee romances—sometimes even when the relationships are successful. So what should an employer do to avoid the potential fallout from office relationships and how can companies avoid Valentine’s Day disasters?

At first glance, it might appear that the easiest solution is simply to ban workplace dating. But upon careful examination this “solution” usually creates its own set of problems. Survey after survey demonstrates that people will engage in romantic and sexual relationships with coworkers, regardless of whether their employers have rules in place prohibiting them. For example, Vault.com’s most recent survey found that 56 percent of employees who responded to the survey had engaged in office romances and 35 percent of employees had had sex in their offices. Moreover, the survey found that 64 percent of people who had had office romances in the past would do so again. This and other surveys show that a flat prohibition on dating is likely to be ineffective, more likely to encourage employees to hide their relationships, and discourage employees from openly dealing with issues that might cause additional problems in the workplace.

“Romantic” workplace relationships can lead to three major problem areas:

  1. actual or perceived favoritism;
  2. harassment and retaliation claims; and
  3. conflicts of interest.

In effect, even when the relationship is working well, other employees may feel as though an individual in a relationship is receiving preferential treatment, particularly if at least one member of the couple is in a managerial role. While this favoritism is not necessarily unlawful, it can poison other workplace relationships and lead to dissatisfaction and complaints about discrimination and harassment. Moreover, if the romantic relationship fails, it will likely change the manager’s behavior toward the subordinate employee, which may also result in claims of harassment or retaliation. Finally, making decisions about employees with whom a supervisor is romantically involved, inherently leads to conflicts of interest.

Therefore, companies need management tools—such as the following types of workplace policies—which may assist employers in establishing healthy workplace boundaries to benefit an entire group of working employees:

  • a non-fraternization policy;
  • a sexual harassment policy; and
  • a conflict of interest policy.

Employers should customize their policies for the particular cultures and nature of their businesses. In addition, employers should present these policies to employees in a manner that minimizes the likelihood that employees will view the policies as an attempt to control them, especially outside the workplace.

What should good policies do?

  • Define what is and what is not acceptable workplace behavior.
  • Establish clear consequences for inappropriate behavior; and
  • Provide a process of determining what courses of action are available.

While company culture will influence what is and is not acceptable in terms of romantic relationships, companies have almost universally determined that dating and romantic or sexual involvement with reporting employees [those for whom the “supervisor” makes decisions regarding promotions, raises, or job assignments, especially those leading to advancement]  should be prohibited. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 99% of companies prohibit supervisors from dating employees who directly report to them.

The key is that relationships, whether casual or romantic, should not negatively impact the workplace. Therefore, any workplace romance policy should:

  • be broad enough so that it covers a range of workplace behavior (i.e., policies should prohibit behavior that negatively affects the workplace);
  • be specific enough so that employees understand what is prohibited, what is permitted, and what specific actions an employee must avoid or take;
  • provide clear disciplinary action for violation of the policy; and
  • be consistently enforced.

Other management tools that employers may use to manage the fallout from workplace romances include:

  • training (for managers, employees, volunteers, vendors, contractors, etc.) including providing information about the fact that close personal relationships (sexual or otherwise) with a direct subordinate may be perceived as favoritism;
  • clear avenues for communication, including open doors; and
  • clear plans of action.

It’s February—Valentine’s Day will soon arrive with its roses, champagne, and chocolate. For employers, policies and practices relating to workplace romance should not vary because of Valentine’s Day—though you might want to remind your workforce that a gift given on a random day in October may not carry with it the romantic overtones of a Valentine’s gift! So be careful! Happy February and Happy Valentine’s Day! May Cupid’s arrows not cause any workplace disasters.

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.

© Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. | Attorney Advertising

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Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

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