With Valentine’s Day approaching, many couples around the globe will celebrate with wine and roses. However, it seems as if each month there is a new story in the headlines about relationships in the workplace gone sour.
Last month, we learned that Keith Rabois, the Chief Operating Officer of Square (an online payments startup) who previously held executive positions at LinkedIn and PayPal, was resigning after a Square employee claimed that Rabois sexually harassed him, and the company failed to take any corrective action to stop the harassment. Rabois explained that he had a physical and welcome relationship with the man who he then helped obtain a position at Square where they continued their relationship in secret until the company was hit with this lawsuit. In response, the company said Rabois had “exercised poor judgment that ultimately undermined his ability to remain an effective leader at Square.”
Meanwhile, Bev Kearney, the University of Texas (UT) women’s track and field coach and one of the most well known women’s track coaches in the country, resigned from her position last month after acknowledging a romantic relationship with one of her athletes that began in 2002. Although the relationship was an “intimate, consensual one,” both Kearney and the UT Legal Affairs Department acknowledged that it was “poor judgment” on Kearney’s part because it was unprofessional and betrayed the trust placed in a head coach as well as the best interests of the students and the University.
What’s So Wrong With Workplace Romance
These cases shine a spotlight on the problems with having relationships in the workplace. Although there are no federal or state laws prohibiting relationships in the workplace, both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and similar state and local laws explicitly prohibit harassment and discrimination.
Workplace relationships gone wrong can sometimes result in sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuits. For example, after the relationship ends, the supervisor’s now jilted lover could claim that the relationship was not consensual and that he or she was sexually harassed by the supervisor. In such a situation, as is the case with Keith Rabois, the company may often end up paying hefty legal bills to defend against the harassment claims.
Similarly, a rejected lover could for example claim that the supervisor retaliated against him or her with a poor performance review and undesirable work assignments after the relationship ended. Further, other employees could claim that the former couple now displays inappropriate workplace behavior such as shouting and fighting which could lead to an uncomfortable and hostile work environment.
Even if an employee’s relationship with a supervisor is successful, the supervisor and the employer still may face a discrimination lawsuit. Other employees could claim unfair treatment if the supervisor inappropriately favored the employee he or she was romantically involved with by accepting subpar work from them or giving them more preferred projects. Further, an employee could claim that he or she found the public displays of affection and romantic behavior between the supervisor and his paramour to be distracting and unprofessional workplace behavior.
Tips for Employers
To minimize employer liability when it comes to workplace dating and romantic relationships, employers should do the following:
- Consider implementing an employee dating and personal relationships policy that will either prohibit dating all together or adopt a policy that sets parameters and guidelines with respect to workplace relationships.
- Evaluate whether a love contract is needed when two employees are involved romantically. A love contract is an agreement that employers may ask employees who are involved in a romantic or sexual relationship to sign stating that the relationship is voluntary and consensual and that the parties are aware of the employer’s sexual harassment policy and no retaliation policy in the event the relationship ends. It also provides rules for appropriate workplace behavior.
- Adopt a conflicts of interest policy that will be communicated to all employees and that employees and supervisors will be expected to follow. This policy will put employees and superiors on notice that they will be obligated to disclose any actual or potential conflict of interest that would adversely affect their judgment, objectivity or loyalty to the employer or to their work.
- Provide training on discrimination, retaliation and harassment to all supervisors and employees.
- Establish a multichannel complaint system and a way for employees to bring complaints of discrimination and harassment.
- In order to minimize liability, employers must immediately respond to any complaints of discrimination, harassment or retaliation and show that they take them seriously.
By taking these steps, employers can better protect their interests in maintaining a fair and professional workplace and decreasing the chance of a discrimination, retaliation or harassment suit resulting from romantic relationships at work.