Workplace Romance: Policies for Employers

Office relationships can lead to sexual harassment claims.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

No federal law specifically bans workplace dating, but employers have the right to implement such policies to maintain a professional work environment, prevent conflicts of interest, and address potential issues that might arise from relationships between employees.

These policies can vary widely depending on the company and industry. Some employers choose to ban dating between employees in certain positions, such as supervisor-subordinate relationships, to avoid conflicts of interest or favoritism.

Others require employees to disclose their relationships or recuse themselves from making employment decisions that could impact their partners.

Workplace Relationships and Sexual Harassment

State and federal anti-harassment laws require employers to take reasonable steps 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.

What Is a Love Contract?

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.

Workplace Relationships: Policies for Employers

As noted above, state and federal laws generally don't prohibit romantic relationships between adults who happen to work together. (However, the military and certain professional organizations often have their own rules on such matters.)

Nevertheless, in an effort to maintain a professional and productive work environment, many employers have policies regarding relationships between coworkers.

Some common approaches that employers take regarding workplace romance include:

  • Total Ban. Employers have the right to regulate or even prohibit romantic relationships between employees, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Employers who impose such a ban often find that the relationships occur anyway. And a ban doesn't let the employer off the hook if an employee complains of favoritism or sexual harassment.
  • Partial Ban. Organizations may have policies that restrict romantic relationships between supervisors and their subordinates to prevent favoritism or the perception of unfair treatment. These policies may require one of the individuals involved to be transferred to a different department or role.
  • Relationship Disclosure Policy. Employers may implement policies that require employees involved in a romantic relationship to disclose it to the company. This allows the employer to address any potential conflicts of interest and ensure a fair and unbiased work environment.
  • Discrimination and Harassment Policies. Many employers choose not to impose any policy on workplace relationships. Those employers address the issues that sometimes arise from workplace relationships (such as sexual harassment) by enforcing other policies, such as those prohibiting discrimination and harassment.

Contact an Attorney

If you're an employer dealing with complaints of sexual harassment or favoritism arising out of a workplace relationship, consider contacting an employment law attorney to discuss your legal options.

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