Valentine’s Day in the #MeToo Era: What’s Appropriate Behavior?

With Valentine’s Day here, love is in the air and in the workplace. In today’s day and age, it is rather natural and somewhat common for individuals to meet at work, share common experiences and interests and potentially socialize, date and even fall in love.

In fact, various workplace surveys show the prevalence of workplace romances. According to Vault’s 2019 workplace romance survey, approximately 52% of respondents have had at least one office romance. Comparably’s survey similarly revealed that that 34% of men and 35% of women say they have dated a co-worker. Additionally, a 2018 survey by CareerBuilder indicated that 37% of men have dated a co-worker as compared to 35% of women.

Workplace romances are not necessarily a bad thing. Many spouses have met at work and have rode off into the sunset together. However, it is absolutely critical for an employer to:

• Be aware of the risks;
• Set ground rules; and
• Properly monitor and manage romantic relationships.

This is particularly true in the age of #MeToo with the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace coming into focus and the line between appropriate and inappropriate workplace conduct becoming increasingly blurred. Therefore, when it comes to dating and romance at work, it is essential for an employer and HR to take an active role and remember the following key tips:

Don’t Make Co-Workers Feel Uncomfortable 

In today’s workplace, individuals need to be incredibly careful about conduct that could make another feel uncomfortable such as hugs, compliments on appearance, physical touches, suggestive emails or public displays of affection between two paramours within view of coworkers. All of these actions, if repetitive and severe, could rise to the level of actionable harassment.

It is important to remember that harassment is broadly construed and may encompass a broad range of physical and verbal conduct and inappropriate touching.  All employees and supervisors need to think twice about doing or saying anything that may be perceived in the wrong way.

Enforce the Policies You Have in Place

An employer and HR must have the proper policies in place to establish workplace protocol and create a framework for appropriate workplace conduct. For example, a harassment policy should contain a broad definition of harassment and a multi-channel complaint procedure allowing individuals to bring complaints to various members of management. A conflict of interest policy should require employees to disclose any actual or potential conflict that would adversely affect judgment, objectivity or loyalty to the employer or to work.

A policy regarding romantic and family relationships at work should address:

• What types of relationships will be permitted;
• A requirement to disclose such relationships; and
• A discussion of proper workplace conduct.

The policy should also contain a recognition of the employer’s right to make necessary employment decisions,  including potential modifications to reporting structures, to avoid business risks when these relationships emerge.

All of these policies should be provided to employees and made part of an employee handbook. It’s also vital for an employer to train employees and supervisors on the relevant workplace policies.

Take Harassment Claims Seriously

If an employer knows or should know of a potential act of harassment or inappropriate touching, the employer must make sure that it takes all such claims seriously. Once it has notice of a claim, the employer should document the complaint, investigate the situation and attempt to take corrective action.

Depending on the severity of the conduct, an employer may need to take interim measures such as separating the complainant and the alleged harasser. The employer should not hesitate to impose discipline up to and including termination. All individuals in the organization must be held accountable to the same standards of conduct, and no one should be afforded special treatment.

Monitor Existing Relationships

It is critical for an employer to monitor any existing workplace romances and make sure that such relationships do not have an adverse effect on the workplace. All conduct must be voluntary and consensual. The couple should also be carefully monitored and advised to avoid engaging in public displays of affection and making others feel uncomfortable.

The employer should ensure that there is no favoritism or preferential treatment occurring due to a workplace romance. Additionally, an employer should determine that no confidential information is shared between two employees.

Be Careful About Supervisor and Subordinate Relationships

An employer needs to be particularly vigilant when it comes to relationships between supervisors and subordinates. It is critical to have a policy requiring a supervisor to disclose any relationship with a subordinate so the employer can make alternative arrangements in the workplace.

Once an employer learns of such a relationship, it should take immediate action to protect itself by adjusting the organizational structure. A supervisor who is romantically involved with a subordinate should be completely removed from oversight of the subordinate and not be responsible for evaluating the subordinate or engaging in any activity or determination that may appear to reward, praise or otherwise affect the subordinate’s employment status.

Consider Using a Love Contract

An employer may want to consider requiring two individuals who are dating or romantically involved to sign a love contract. The love contract is a contractual agreement signed by the two individuals as well as the employer indicating that the couple is voluntarily engaged in a romantic relationship and the relationship will not negatively affect the workplace.

The love contract should also set forth that the individuals are aware of the employer’s sexual harassment policies and rules regarding conflicts of interest and appropriate workplace conduct. In essence, the contract will memorialize the consensual nature of the relationship and protect the employer from future harassment or retaliation claims in the event that the romantic relationship ends.

How does your organization address romantic relationships in the workplace? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.

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