Valentine’s Day brings thoughts of chocolates and sweets. And love may be sweetening your workplace, too. In Vault.com’s 2015 Office Romance Survey, 51 percent of business professionals surveyed said they have had an office romance at some point in their careers.
But office “sweethearts” can quickly sour on each other. Although employers should generally avoid inquiring into an employee’s off-duty activities, particularly in the absence of a showing of any impact at work, an employer may rightly be concerned about liability related to workplace romances.
One concern for employers is that if the relationship goes bad — and many will — one of the employees may bring a claim for sexual harassment or sexual discrimination.
Relationships between employees and supervisors are particularly problematic. Employers are strictly liable for a supervisor’s sexual harassment of a subordinate. Strict liability means that the employer has absolute legal responsibility for any harm — the employer does not have to be found careless or negligent.
This week, CalChamber brings you the top 10 problems office romances can bring:
- Flirting and other romantic behaviors distract the parties involved in the relationship, and the co-workers around them, leading to decreased productivity and morale. The entire department may be affected by the relationship. For instance, co-workers may feel uneasy about the romance and exclude the romantic couple from decision making and other project tasks.
- Gossip and rumors can be disruptive and affect the reputation of the company and the parties involved.
- The romantic couple may not be seen as professional, credible, focused or committed to their jobs. Promotions may be hampered, especially if the promotion would result in one romantic partner reporting to the other.
- The appearance of favoritism can negatively affect the work environment and may lead to liability. In one case, a boss showed favoritism to female employees he was in relationships with. The California Supreme Court noted that extensive sexual favoritism in a workplace can create a hostile work environment in which female employees believe that management views them as “sexual playthings” or that women must engage in sexual conduct with their supervisors to receive favorable treatment (Miller v. California Department of Corrections).
- Personal problems and fights can spill over into the workplace.
- A relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate may not be truly consensual or “welcome.” In one case, a church hired a personal assistant for a reverend. The assistant claimed that the reverend made him engage in a sexual relationship. The assistant also claimed that he did not want to participate but did so “voluntarily” because the reverend threatened his job and also made him re-do already finished work. The church’s argument that it wasn’t liable because the assistant consented to the relationship was rejected. Eventually, a $5 million verdict was issued for the assistant (Medina v. United Christian Evangelistic Association).
- One of the parties might not stop pursuing the other even after the relationship is over — causing a hostile work environment. For instance, a warehouse clerk and her supervisor began a consensual sexual relationship, which went on for a couple of months. The employer was hit with a lawsuit after the supervisor got upset that the clerk wouldn’t continue their once-consensual affair. Among his alleged actions after the breakup: criticizing her work, verbally reprimanding her and threatening to “make her life at work difficult” (Walker v. Mac Frugals Bargains, Closeouts, Inc.).
- The employees involved in the romance look for jobs elsewhere — either because the relationship ends or because an ongoing relationship is causing problems at work. The company may lose strong performers.
- Work becomes uncomfortable when the relationship is over. The end of the relationship affects the employees’ ability to collaborate on projects together. Motives in any future work interactions may be questioned.
- An ex-lover can sabotage your career. An office manager in one case was awarded nearly $760,000 after an office romance ended badly. The manager was pursued by the doctor she worked for and eventually entered into a one-year consensual sexual relationship with him. The relationship ended because the doctor began a relationship with another employee. The doctor’s new girlfriend wanted the ex fired, and the doctor began a campaign of making his ex’s work environment intolerable, including changing office procedures, restructuring her duties, reprimanding her and demoting her (Green v. Administrators of Tulane Educational Fund).
The CalChamber recommends that employers:
- Ensure all training, including name of provider and dates of training, are maintained for all supervisors.
- Provide mandatory sexual harassment prevention training, such as CalChamber’s online, interactive 2-Hour California Harassment Prevention Training, every two years based on the tracking method(s) the company chooses.
- Give all employees a copy of the employer’s anti-harassment policy and a sexual harassment information sheet at least once a year but always upon hire.
CalChamber offers an affordable, well-produced online training system that satisfies the training requirement. More information on the course, Harassment Prevention Training for Supervisors, is available at www.calchamberstore.com.