The Rules of Workplace Romance

Office relationships can lead to sexual harassment claims.

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Cultural attitudes toward workplace romances are shifting. According to a 2010 survey conducted by Vault.com, a company for career intelligence, 60% of workers have participated in an office romance. More than 30% have even admitted to having a "romantic liaison" while on company property.

Times are changing, and as companies reach out to hire recent college graduates, employers should be aware of the potential risks. A recent Workplace Options survey found that 84% of workers ages 18-29 say that they would have a romantic relationship with a coworker, compared to only 36% of workers ages 30-46 and 29% of Boomers ages 47 to 66. In addition, 40% of young workers report that they wouldn't have a problem dating a supervisor, compared to only 10% of their counterparts in older age brackets.

When Romance Becomes Harassment

State and federal anti-harassment laws require employers to take all reasonable actions to prevent unlawful harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment can come in various forms,including visual (such as cartoons and pornography), verbal (lewd jokes and unwanted advances, for example) and physical (groping).

The possible claims that can arise from an office romance are virtually endless. A subordinate employee may claim that he or she consented to a sexual relationship because he or she was threatened with a demotion or pay cut. Third parties may take note of the relationship and challenge any preferential treatment that the superior is displaying. Most commonly, the former lovebirds may clash after a breakup and either harass one another while at work, or fabricate workplace sexual harassment to retaliate against an ex.

(To learn more about these types of legal issues, see our section on Discrimination and Harassment Laws.)

Conflict of Interest

We spend nearly a third of our adult lives at work, making workplace relationships nearly unavoidable. At the onset of a romance, employees may not be thinking clearly. They may fail to consider the potential conflict of interest and the distractions the relationship will bring forward.

Even if workplace relationships are inevitable, they shouldn't take place between boss and subordinate, among coworkers who work directly together, or between an employee and a vendor. The potential for conflicts of interest in these relationships is just too great. Employees who embark on a relationship together should be aware of issues that may arise, including favoritism, discrimination and the chance of a hostile work environment.

How to Protect Yourself as an Employer

Companies are steering away from addressing office romance in their employee policies. An employer that tries to directly dictate who their employees may or may not have a romantic relationship with can  land in a legal gray area. 

Instead of "anti-fraternization" or "no-dating" policies, policies that prohibit sexual harassment and discrimination -- and encourage employees to come forward with complaints -- are encouraged. This way, if an office romance does lead to harassment, the employer will have notice of the problem and be able to take action.

Some companies also require employees to enter into a written disclosure of their relationship, commonly referred to as a "love contract." This is a document that employees must sign to confirm that their relationship is consensual, and to agree not to engage in certain behaviors, like public displays of affection or workplace retaliation when a relationship ends.

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